The moon is a hot destination right now – especially for NASA, which wants to send people back to the lunar surface, but also for the private space industry. The most ambitious private lunar exploits are still many years away, but already three companies say they will launch small robotic moon landings in the next two years, intensifying a small space race.
So far no private entity has landed something successful on the moon. Only three government superpowers – the United States, China and Russia – have ever been able to gently touch vehicles on the moon's surface, and the Indian government may become fourth in September. Israeli non-governmental organization SpaceIL attempted to land the first private moon ship in April, but early engine shutdown caused the vehicle to crash into the moon's surface instead. This means the door is still open for one of these three companies to make the first private moon landing.
This Pittsburgh-based company first started as a team for the Google Lunar X Award competition, an international competition to send the first privately funded farmer to the moon, the race ended without a winner when none of the finalists did not start before the deadline of March 31, 2018. But many teams continued to aim for the moon, including the Astrobotic. (SpaceIL was also a team at the X Prize.)
Astrobotic's stated purpose is to open access to the moon. In general, if you want to place an instrument on the moon, Astrobotic will provide a picker to take it there. NASA has selected the company to be part of the space agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Program (CLPS), which is an initiative to send a small robotic spacecraft to the moon. Astrobotic is now tasked with sending up to 14 NASA payloads to the lunar surface on the first flight of a six-foot Peregrine high-altitude lander. The vehicle will also carry payloads for other customers around the world.
On August 19, Astrobotic announced that it was traveling to Peregrina. The future Vulcan Centaur rocket of the United Launch Alliance will launch Peregrine space into space sometime in 2021. In fact, it will be the first volcanic centaur flight currently under development. While this is an exciting moment for both companies to look forward to, the timing can always change with each new rocket. Plus, ULA is drawing on the Vulcan design from its current rockets that could help keep things going. We'll see if the date is in the coming months.
Another former Google Lunar X competitor, ispace, is a private organization based in Japan with great ambitions for the moon. The company outlined a long-term vision for creating a sustainable lunar city that uses water, minerals and other materials scraped by the moon. The ambitious dream is called Moon Valley, and space theorizes that it can be fulfilled by 2040.
To realize this dream, the company is developing a series of landscapes and rovers to explore the moon's surface and the team has already contracted two fields SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket for its first flights in the 2020s. The ispace plan initially required the launch of a spacecraft to orbit the moon on the first Falcon 9 flight in 2020, followed by a landing / rover van on the second flight in 2021.
But a little upset, ispace announced on August 22 that it decided to completely skip the orbit mission because of "dramatic market acceleration and growing demand for lunar exploration around the world." Instead, the first flight of The Falcon 9 will include a lander from a Japanese company and will fly in 2021. The second flight will include a lander and rover, and now it will fly in 2023.
which can always affect the schedule. "Moving forward, ispace will respond to the need to develop landing facilities in this new timeframe, as well as secure a contract with an earth station to operate the lunar lander from Earth, build a mission control center and draw up plans for training and operations for ground mission operations, "the company says in a statement on the change.
Intuitive Machines may not have participated in the Google Lunar X Prize Competition, but a Houston-based company may praise is founding former NASA Engineers, giving decades of space flight experience to the team, NASA also selected intuitive machines as part of the first round of the CLPS program and wants the company to bring up to five of the space agency's payloads to the moon. is a Nova-C intuitive machine launcher scheduled to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2021.
None of these companies have launched anything yet, so there are still plenty of ways to get around before the moon is visible. But at the moment, all three teams are neck and neck, which means that the next few years will be an interesting time to watch this moon fight unfold.