By Elton Gomes
On Thursday, NASA named nine US companies that will bid to deliver science and technology payloads for the space agency as a one of the first steps towards long-term scientific study and human exploration of the Moon and eventually Mars.
Some of the selected companies will develop small launch vehicles and robotic rovers over the next 10 years, while vying for a chunk of the $2.6 billion worth contracts under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine disclosed the CLPS contracts as part of US President Trump administration’s efforts to encourage greater commercial investment in space exploration.
“We want to be one customer of many customers in a robust marketplace between the earth and the moon, and we want multiple providers that are competing on cost and innovations so that we as NASA can do more than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Bridenstine said, as per a Bloomberg report.
Which companies have been selected?
Among the nine mostly small start-up companies selected by NASA is one large defence contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp.
The following companies have been selected: Astrobotic Technology, Inc., Pittsburgh; Deep Space Systems, Colorado; Draper, Massachusetts; Firefly Aerospace, Inc., Texas; Intuitive Machines, LLC, Houston; Lockheed Martin Space, Colorado; Masten Space Systems, Inc., California; Moon Express, Florida; and Orbit Beyond, New Jersey.
How will they help NASA?
The nine will be among the first companies who would be able to bid to deliver science and technology payloads through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts. These services will launch from Earth and land on the moon, and NASA will just be “one customer of many customers”, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Thursday.
The providers will compete on cost and innovation so that NASA can accomplish more than ever, he said. These missions could begin as early as 2019.
What has NASA planned?
NASA is pursuing dual projects of building a lunar orbital platform and returning astronauts to the moon in the mid-2020s – all of these missions are aimed towards eventually sending humans to Mars.
The space agency has predicted human presence on the moon within a decade, joining landers and rovers working there, Bridenstine said. He cited a planned “open architecture” that would allow for a sustained ecosystem among Earth, the moon, and a planned lunar gateway orbiting the moon.
In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1, wherein the President directed NASA “to lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities”.
Replying to the President’s call, and consistent with the NASA Transition Authorisation Act of 2017, NASA submitted to Congress a plan to revitalise and add direction to NASA’s enduring purpose.
The National Space Exploration Campaign calls for human and robotic exploration missions to go beyond the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds, and the cosmos.
NASA’s National Space Exploration Campaign has five strategic goals: transitioning low-Earth orbit human spaceflight, like the International Space Station, to more commercial operations; using robotic missions to identify resources on the moon; expanding surface operations on the moon; returning astronauts to the moon’s surface; and demonstrating what’s mandatory for human missions to Mars.
Moon missions in the offing
According to recent reports, Russia plans to establish a moon colony by 2040, the Russian federal space agency announced on Wednesday. This came after discussions were held on the country’s long-term space program.
“The lunar program will be implemented in several stages by 2040,” Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, said in a press release (in Russian) on Wednesday after a joint session with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ space council.
In a presentation about the lunar programme, Russian news agency RIA Novosti cited Yevgeny Mikrin, Russia’s chief designer of manned space programmes, as saying that construction of the moon colony could begin late in 2025, as per a report in the Moscow Times.
In another instance, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed that Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire and founder of Zozotown, Japan’s largest online clothing retailer, will be the first private customer to journey around the Moon on the company’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR).
Maezawa’s trip could materialise as early as 2023, and he plans to take other artists with him to turn the entire ride into an art project called #DearMoon.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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