Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NASA Wants the Private Sector to Make Lunar Landers

Astronaut Dale A. Gardner holds a sign referring to recovered satellites. Photo: NASA

Lunar exploration enthusiasts were dealt a blow yesterday, with the news that China's Yutu rover—the first mobile vehicle to reach the Moon in almost four decades—is probably dead. But buck up, moonies, because all hope is not lost. In 2014, NASA has already outsourced space shuttles and astronaut training to private companies, not to mention the agency has enjoyed huge returns by handing over its ISS cargo runs to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

It should come as no surprise, then, that NASA has decided to open lunar surface exploration to the commercial market. The new initiative is called Lunar CATALYST, which stands for CArgo Transportation And Landing bY Soft Touchdown (a somewhat forced acronym, but the effort is appreciated). It was announced on January 16, but the details weren't hammered out until a teleconference held yesterday.

“The intent of this initiative is to stimulate and help commercialization,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems, during the call with prospective bidders.

The “soft touchdown” part of the program stands out as particularly exciting. Exploration of the Moon has been limited to orbiters and hard landings (read: crashes) since the Soviet probe Luna 24 touched down in 1976. Since that year, several rovers and probes have successfully soft-landed on Mars, and the Huygens probe even made it to Titan. Think of that: before China landed its first payload on the Moon in December 2013, space agencies worldwide had soft landed on Saturn's moon more recently than on our own. It's way past time lunar exploration was kicked up a notch.

An artist's depiction of Huygens' soft landing, on a moon way more distant than our own. Photo: NASA

Like NASA's other calls for commercial help, the objective of the Lunar CATALYST program is to take some of the financial and administrative burdens of spaceflight off of the budget-strapped agency, while also empowering the private sector to participate in off-Earth exploration. 

NASA is specifically calling for lunar lander models capable of delivering small (30-100 kg) and medium (250-500 kg) payloads. They must be compatible with commercial US launch facilities.

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