NASA’s commercial lunar program ready to start flying in 2023

by Justin Davenport

The NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program is on the verge of flying its first missions to the lunar surface this year after delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. CLPS will deliver science to the lunar surface in support of the Artemis human lunar program and was announced in April 2018 with nine companies winning the right to bid on CLPS contracts that November. 

The first three CLPS contracts for robotic lunar surface missions were awarded in May 2019, with the winners being Astrobotic Technology, Intuitive Machines, and OrbitBeyond. In November 2019, five additional companies became eligible to bid for these missions. 

While OrbitBeyond asked to be released from its contract two months later, citing internal corporate issues, other companies have won CLPS contracts. Masten Space Systems won a contract in April 2020, though its future is to be determined after Masten was acquired by Astrobotic in September 2022. In February 2021, Firefly Aerospace won a CLPS contract to deliver 10 experiments to the lunar surface, while Draper Laboratories won a contract in July 2022.

A fairing half being prepared for the first ULA Vulcan launch, which will carry Peregrine to the Moon (Credit: ULA)

The companies with CLPS contracts will develop the landers and rovers, providing lunar landing, sample return, and support services for the science payloads to be carried on the spacecraft. NASA and other contractors will provide the science payloads.

The first two CLPS missions to fly will be the Astrobotic Peregrine and Intuitive Machines Nova-C on mission IM-1. Both landers are scheduled to fly during the first quarter of 2023, with Peregrine planned for the first flight of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, which is currently no earlier than the first quarter of 2023. IM-1 is scheduled for March and will launch aboard a Falcon 9.

Originally for a lunar XPrize mission, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic has developed the Peregrine lander. The Peregrine won one of the initial contracts to conduct a CLPS mission in 2019. The Peregrine lunar lander, flying on Peregrine Mission 1, is a boxy, 2.5-meter-wide by 1.9-meter-tall spacecraft massing 1,283 kilograms for this first flight, with 90 kg available for payloads.

Peregrine uses an aluminum bus structure with four isogrid shear panels, two aluminum honeycomb enclosures, and a launch vehicle adapter cone, along with four landing legs. Five main engines are mounted on that adapter cone, and these engines are used for orbit maneuvers and landing. There are also 12 ACS attitude control thrusters that enable the spacecraft to move around its axes. 

These engines all use storable hypergolic propellants that ignite on contact. Mono-methyl hydrazine (MMH) is the fuel, while 25 percent mixed oxides of nitrogen (MON-25) is the oxidizer. The fuel and oxidizer tanks are covered in thermal insulation for protection against temperature extremes.

Peregrine is equipped with a Doppler LiDAR system that feeds the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) system with vital range data for landing. The spacecraft uses multiple low-gain antennas and a medium or high-gain antenna to communicate with Earth. Peregrine also uses a 2.4 GHz 802.11n-compliant WLAN (wireless) modem to communicate with payloads deployed on the lunar surface. 

The Peregrine lander is customizable for individual missions. For Mission 1, the lander will have its solar panels mounted on top for best power generation, as it will fly to a mid-latitude landing site. Later missions to the lunar poles will have the solar panels mounted to the side. In either case, these panels use triple-junction gallium indium phosphide (GaInP), gallium arsenide (GaAS), and germanium (Ge) solar cells.

Lacus Mortis and Burg crater imaged from a Celestron C8 telescope. Aristotles and Eudoxus craters are to the right, and Hercules and Atlas craters are to the left. (Credit: Justin Davenport for NSF)

For Mission 1, scheduled to last eight days (192 hours), the Peregrine lander will be carrying 14 NASA and 14 commercial payloads. They will be carried to the lunar surface at Lacus Mortis, which is a 158 km diameter basaltic lava plain that flooded an ancient crater between 3.2 and 3.8 billion years ago. Lacus Mortis, located at 45.13° N, 27.32° E, is on the northeast quadrant of the lunar near side, south of Mare Frigoris and northeast of Mare Serenitatis. 

Among the NASA payloads on this flight is a laser retroreflector array that will measure the exact distance from Earth to the Peregrine lander on the Moon. A neutron spectrometer to measure the potential for water ice is also on board, along with a magnetometer and other experiments. 

The 14 commercial payloads on Mission 1 include a 3D printer, a lunar laser, a data relay system, and several cubesat-sized lunar rovers. Astrobotic’s OPAL Sensor, developed with Moog and NASA centers, is planned to demonstrate image-based terrain relative navigation in the lunar environment. OPAL will be incorporated into the GNC system for future missions, including those with the follow-on Griffin lander that can accommodate larger payloads.

The DHL MoonBox, which is designed to contain mementos, is carrying 28 payloads from various universities, organizations, and individuals in the United States and elsewhere. A number of time capsules are being carried on Peregrine Mission 1, along with cryptocurrency and other items.

The Nova-C lander on its way to the Moon. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

Intuitive Machines, based in Houston, has developed the Nova-C lander to fly payloads to the lunar surface. Like Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines won a contract to fly a CLPS mission in 2019, and Nova-C inherited technology from NASA’s Project Morpheus. Project Morpheus tested a methane and liquid oxygen engine — plus autonomous landing and hazard detection technology.

The Nova-C lander masses 1,900 kg and is a six-sided structure three meters high by two meters wide. 130 kg is available for payloads, and the spacecraft is equipped with six landing legs. Solar panels are mounted on two of the Nova-C’s sides as well as the top of the lander, and fuel tanks are mounted on two other sides. The remaining pair of sides can be used to mount payloads.

The lander is equipped with a methane and liquid oxygen (methalox) main engine used for all major maneuvers. The engine, known as the VR-900, is capable of producing 4,000 N of thrust. Below the engine, the Nova-C can have a jettisonable ESPA ring that allows for up to 1,000 kg of payloads that can fly to lunar orbit or elsewhere in the solar system.

IM-1 will be carrying five NASA payloads to the lunar surface, with the landing site — originally set to be Vallis Schroteri — currently planned to be between Mare Crisium and Mare Serenitatis. The mission, also carrying six commercial payloads, is scheduled to last up to 14 Earth days, which is the length of one lunar day.

Like Peregrine Mission 1, IM-1 is also carrying a laser retroreflector array to precisely measure the distance from Earth to the IM-1 landing site. A Doppler LiDAR, a set of stereo cameras to study plume interactions on the lunar surface, a radio wave observation of the lunar surface device, and a navigation demonstration device are on board.

Nova-C after landing on the Moon. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

Also on board IM-1 is the ILO-X demonstrator, a precursor to an astronomical observatory on the lunar surface. ILO-X features an imager that will try to take the first pictures of the Milky Way’s galactic center from the lunar surface, and that will conduct other observations.

Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Heat Infinity reflective foil will fly on this mission to provide thermal protection. Additionally,  an art installation by Jeff Koons, a “selfie” camera by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a microfiche payload known as Lunagram to document how humanity lives, and a proof-of-concept data center by Lonestar Data Holdings round out the commercial payloads on IM-1.

Another CLPS mission could also fly later in the year. IM-2, scheduled to land at the lunar south polar region, is currently scheduled for no earlier than June. It will fly a drill known as TRIDENT, a mass spectrometer, and a “hopper” known as Micro Nova that can operate up to 25 km from the lander. 

Masten Mission One was scheduled for this coming November, but it is unknown if it will fly at around this time. Firefly and Draper’s missions are likely going to fly later than 2023. The missions that do fly in 2023 will be setting the stage for an even more active 2024, with Astrobotic’s Griffin lander and the VIPER rover scheduled to launch. Moreover, IM-3, flying to Reiner Gamma and also including a rover, is currently scheduled for next year.

(Lead image: Artist impression of the Astrobotic Peregrine lander on the lunar surface. Credit: Astrobotic)

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