NASA is going to land on the moon again, maybe as soon as next year.
It will still be a while — no sooner than 2024 — before any astronauts return, but NASA plans to send experiments and technology packages on a series of small robotic landers carrying to the lunar surface.
On Friday, NASA announced the first orders for those deliveries, awarding them to Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, Intuitive Machines of Houston and Orbit Beyond of Edison, N.J.
NASA officials said a hands-off approach — the companies will design, build and operate the spacecraft, not NASA — would speed the work at a lower cost. The agency also made its decisions in a few months, a quicker pace than most NASA programs.
“NASA is just a customer here,” said Chris Culbert, the manager of the program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, for short. “NASA is taking a back seat role, if you will, in how we participate.”
Orbit Beyond is aiming to be the first to take off, in September 2020. The company, with NASA’s award of $97 million, has proposed flying as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the moon’s largest craters.
Astrobotic is aiming to launch in summer 2021. It has been awarded $79.5 million and has proposed flying as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, another lunar crater.
Intuitive Machines has been awarded $77 million to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, an intriguing dark spot on the moon.
While not large or well known, the three companies are not starting from scratch. Astrobotic has been in business for a dozen years, first started to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, which offered a $25 million prize for the first private organization to land on the moon. Astrobotic dropped out of the X Prize race, which ended last year without a winner. But the company continued its work, convinced that there a viable commercial market for taking payloads to the lunar surface would emerge.
Orbit Beyond is the using the lander technology of another X Prize competitor, India’s Team Indus, and Intuitive Machines is led by Stephen J. Altemus, a former deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In November, NASA announced that it had selected nine companies to compete for up to $2.6 billion over the next decade under the CLPS program.
“This first round of payloads was selected from hardware that was in-house at NASA, largely already ready or things we could have ready by the end of the year,” Mr. Culbert said.
Those included instruments to measure radiation, the moon’s magnetic field and surface composition, advanced solar arrays and a navigation beacon.
NASA did not specify a specific destination and allowed the companies to propose which instruments they wanted to carry.
“We’ll get value out of all these payloads no matter where they go,” Mr. Culbert said. Future orders are likely be directed to specific lunar destinations like one of the poles or the far side of the moon.
For future flights, spacecraft like these could survey potential landing sites for human missions. The next astronaut missions are to head near the lunar South Pole where there is ice frozen in the eternal shadows of some craters. The ice would not only be a source of water, but could also be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen. Both could provide propellant for rocket engines, and the oxygen would also provide air for astronauts to breathe.
No one knows how hard it will be to extract ice; it could be sparsely distributed and mixed with dirt and rocks.
The missions could also deliver prototypes of future telescopes and other scientific instruments.
Unlike past moon programs, which have been designed and operated by NASA, the space agency wants to take a low-cost, high-risk approach.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s science directorate, uses a hockey analogy: NASA wants to take many shots on goal, not expecting all of them to score.
Some, maybe most, of these companies will likely fail. But the hope is that effort kick-starts a new industry, essentially a FedEx or U.P.S. to the moon, much like SpaceX got in the business of carrying supplies to the International Space Station at lower cost and was able to use the same rocket for commercial satellite launches. Eventually the companies that succeed could offer services not only to NASA but to companies also wanting to set up shop on the moon.
What is unknown is how skilled these companies are and how good a goalie the moon is at blocking spacecraft.