This Private Moon Lander Is Kicking Off a Commercial Lunar Race

Soon, the Ispace lander will have plenty of company. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic will be sending its Peregrine lander on the debut flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which could launch in June. Houston-based Intuitive Machines plans to send two Nova-C landers to the moon this year, with another slated for 2024. Other companies, like Firefly Aerospace and Draper, have their own landers heading there in the next couple years. SpaceIL will make another attempt, sending Beresheet 2 in 2025. And Astrobotic and Ispace are already looking ahead toward more ambitious landers to follow their initial designs.

After years of hype, the commercial lunar market finally appears to be getting off the ground—and there seems to be enough customer demand for payload spots to keep the fledgling industry growing. For example, Astrobotic’s first lander will carry payloads from 16 clients. Among them are small robots from the Mexican space agency, a radiation detector from the German Aerospace Center, and Carnegie Mellon University’s MoonArk, an artistic project somewhat akin to the Golden Records aboard the Voyager spacecraft. Firefly’s first lander, called Blue Ghost, will bring two payloads from Honeybee Robotics (acquired last year by Blue Origin), including an instrument called the Lunar PlanetVac for sampling the soil and a device from Aegis Aerospace that will assess how bits of regolith stick to material surfaces.

“I think this is a signal of a strong market. I wish for success not only for our own missions but also for our competitors,” says Tim Crain, Intuitive Machines’s chief technology officer. Successful lunar missions could also eventually set the stage for commercial Martian landers, he says. 

Still, although there are a growing number of private clients for space shipping, the expanding market is significantly driven by NASA through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. About twice a year, NASA has been putting out calls for bids to deliver a science payload—or occasionally a technology development one—that it wants shipped to a specific lunar location by a certain date. Companies then bid on those transportation services. In 2019, NASA tapped Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines for such deliveries, and later this year one of them will make the program’s first lunar drop. Each order is worth about $100 million on average, and NASA’s agreements so far total about $1 billion, says deputy program manager Ryan Stephan. One of the ultimate goals, he says, is to help jump-start this new industry. “We focus today on the science return of our missions, but an important benefit of the project is developing this commercial lunar economy,” he says.

NASA’s biggest CLPS contract by far, worth about $330 million, will involve bringing the agency’s Viper lunar rover to the moon’s south pole in November 2024. That job is going to Astrobotic’s Griffin, its successor to Peregrine and the largest lander of the bunch. 

Firefly’s second Blue Ghost will haul NASA’s LuSEE-Night, a low-frequency radio telescope, to the far side of the moon in 2026. It will also deploy the European Space Agency’s Lunar Pathfinder communications satellite into moon orbit.

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