NASA is going back to the moon, but it’s not doing it alone. The agency has just revealed its three commercial partners for phase one of the Artemis program. These US companies will help NASA deliver cargo and scientific instruments to the lunar surface in the next few years with the aim of supporting human landings and habitation by the mid-2020s.
There have been no human landings on the moon for decades, and the Artemis program aims to change that. Even the name harkens back to the last time humans ventured onto the lunar surface — in Greek mythology, Artemis is the sister of Apollo. The first part of the program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), will consist of scientific instruments like spectrometers, magnetometers, and radio telescopes. There will also be devices to assist with navigation and landing for future missions.
The three companies that will help NASA deliver these payloads to the moon are Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, Intuitive Machines in Houston, and Orbit Beyond from Edison, New Jersey. Each of the three has its own contract with NASA valued in tens of millions of dollars: $79.5 million for Astrobotic, $77 million for Intuitive Machines, and $97 million for Orbit Beyond.
Astrobotic will fly as many as 14 missions to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon. NASA expects these missions to be underway by summer 2021. Intuitive Machines is slated for as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, the large dark patch on the moon’s Earth-facing side. Orbit Beyond will handle four scientific missions to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain inside the Imbrium Basin, one of the largest known craters in the solar system.
NASA hopes to have all the initial CLPS missions wrapped up in the next few years. They will gather important data on the moon, and demonstrate technologies that will help inform the next phase of the Artemis program: human spaceflight.
NASA currently hopes to have the first human landings in 2024. Following that, NASA will use projects like the Lunar Gateway station to enable a long-term human presence in orbit and on the surface of the moon. The long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS) is part of the Artemis program, and it has the potential to push back the second phase if testing doesn’t go as planned. NASA expects to test the SLS in 2020 with the first crewed launch in 2022.
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