Moon exporation startup ispace opens new U.S. office and hires SpaceX alum to lead development of next lander

Japanese startup ispace, which is developing lander technology to support exploration of the Moon, is opening an office in Denver, the company announced today. The Colorado location was chosen because of its access to local aerospace engineering talent, and the plan is for the company to quickly staff up a full local engineering team. ispace also announced that it has hired Kursten O’Neill, a seven year SpaceX vet, who will oversee development of ispace’s next-generation lunar lander craft.

The U.S. expansion comes as ispace looks to work more closely together with NASA, both through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where ispace is currently partnering with U.S.-based space specialist Draper on its bid to provide lunar lander transportation services for the agency. ispace also hopes to leverage its international footprint to help be a strategic linkage between the U.S. and its international partners more broadly across the Artemis program, which is NASA’s mission series intended to help humans return to the Moon and establish a more permanent presence there for continued science and research purposes.

ispace is set to launch its first lunar landers for its Mission 1 and Mission 2 operations, currently planned to take place starting with a debut launch in 2021. Its planned Mission 3 will be the first to carry its forthcoming next-generation lander, to be designed and manufactured in the U.S. by a team led by O’Neill, which will boast a larger footprint and greater payload capacity.

Spacebit books a second trip to the Moon via NASA’s commercial lunar payload program

UK-based robotic rover startup Spacebit has booked a second payload delivery to the Moon, aboard the Nova-C lander that Intuitive Machines is planning to send in 2021 as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Spacebit already has a berth aboard the Astrobotic Peregrine lander that’s set to go to the Moon in July 2021, flying atop a Vulcan Centaur rocket, and so this would follow quickly on the heels of that mission, with a current mission timeframe of October 2021 to deliver the Intuitive Machines lander via a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Spacebit’s Asagumo 4-legged walking rover is set to fly on that first CLPS mission (which NASA created to source commercial partners for delivering experiments and payloads to the Moon along with over private cargo ahead of its Artemis crewed Moon missions). For this second Nova-C lander launch, Spacebit is preparing a wheeled rover that will carry a small NASA scientific module. Both the wheeled and the walking rover are designed to help assess what kind of resources are available on the surface of the Moon, with the aim of providing support for the Artemis program.

This will provide Spacebit with multiple opportunities to assess the makeup of the regolith (the equivalent of soil for other planets), which is its primary goal with these missions. The different rover designs will also mean it can better assess which is more amenable to the task. The 4-legged design is intended to make the walking rover better able to deal with uneven surfaces, allowing it to potentially even explore lava flow tubes and other cave-like areas that could be suitable for natural shelter and future lunar habitat creation.

CMU’s MoonRanger robot rover will be the first to search for water ice on the Moon in 2022

Carnegie Mellon University and spinoff space startup Astrobotic are developing a robotic rover to look for water on the Moon, and the little bot just passed the crucial preliminary design review phase, putting it one step closer to its inaugural mission planned for 2022. MoonRanger is aiming to be the first robotic detective to investigate whether buried ice is present in sufficient quantities to be useful to future lunar explorers.

MoonRanger could well be the first, provided it sticks to its schedule, but it’ll have competition from NASA’s own water ice-hunting rover – a golf-cart-sized robotic explorer called VIPER which is aiming to touchdown on the Moon in December, 2022. The goal of VIPER is to help look for the presence of water ice near the Moon’s surface in order to help prepare the way for the planned human landing in 2024, which kicks off efforts on the part of NASA and its partners in the international space community to establish a permanent human science and research presence on our large natural satellite.

Like VIPER, MoonRanger is destined for the South Pole of the Moon, and will be a kind of advance scout for NASA’s mission. Ideally, MoonRanger, delivered by Masten Space Systems’ XL-1 lunar lander under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, will confirm the presence of water ice in decent amounts, and then VIPER will arrive a bit later with the ability to drill deeper, and to perform more rigorous on-site analysis.

MoonRanger will be much smaller than VIPER, at roughly the size of a suitcase, but it will have the ability to travel at speeds previously unheard-of for extraterrestrial exploratory robots. The CMU bot will be able to cover up to 1,000 meters (almost two-thirds of a mile) over the course of a single day. That small size means it’ll rely on a relay to send any communications back to Earth – a process which will involve transmitting to the Masten lander, which will relay that back to scientists here at home using its much higher-powered communications array.

NASA is looking to buy Moon dirt from private companies – no return shipping required

NASA wants to procure samples of lunar soil from private contractors, the agency announced today in a blog post by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. This is part of the agency’s overall ambitions around returning humans to the Moon by 2024, and establishing a sustained human research presence there. NASA is asking for proposals from commercial space companies to offer up their proposals for collecting a small amount of rocks or dirt from “any location” on the Moon’s surface, along with a photo of the collection process and resulting sample.

The proposals ask only that private companies collect the material – they’re not responsible for actually getting it back to Earth for study. They will need to do an “in-place” handoff of the collected sample to the agency – on the Moon, but that’s much less of a challenge than shipping it all the way back here, and the specifics around retrieval will be handled by NASA “at a later date.”

Some stipulations and specifics to keep in mind: NASA wants the retrieval of the materials to take place before 2024, along with the ownership handoff. This is also open to companies internationally, so it’s not just for U.S. private space companies, and it’s also possible that NASA will make more than one award under the program. In terms of payouts, winning companies will get 10 percent o the total contract value at the time of the award, another 10 percent at launch of their retrieval vehicle, and the final 80 percent once the sample is collected and handed off.

There are a number of companies working on extraterrestrial resource collection, so this call could get some interesting applicants. It’s worth noting that this is separate from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which offers contracts for transporting experiments to the lunar surface aboard landers – but you can bet some of those startups and companies will be vying for the chance to use said landers and robotic rovers in development to pick up some Moon dirt for NASA.

NASA issues new call for lunar payload deliveries from its commercial Moon lander partners

NASA wants its private commercial space company partners to make more Moon deliveries on its behalf: The agency just issued another request for scientific and experimental payloads that need lunar delivery sometime in 2022, in part to help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis human lunar landing mission planned for 2024.

NASA previously established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in order to build a stable of approved vendors for a special special type of service, namely providing lunar landers that would be able to handle last-mile delivery of special payloads to the Moon. It now counts 14 companies on this list of vendors, including Astrobotic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Firefly to name a few, who are eligible to bid on contracts it creates to take specific cargo to the lunar surface.

Already, NASA has contracted two batches of payloads under the CLPS program, which will make up four planned total launches already under contract, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One set for June 2021; Intutive Machines IM-1 for October the same year; Masten’s Mission One for December 2022; and Astrobotic’s VIPER mission for sometime in 2023.

The list of new payloads for this round include a variety of scientific instruments, including a lunar regolith (that’s the Moon equivalent of soil) adhesion testing device; X-ray imagers; a dust shield created by the interaction of electric fields; and an advanced Moon vacuum for returning surface samples to Earth for more testing.

NASA’s private partners on the CLPS list will now be able to submit bids to cary the new list of 10 experiments and demonstrations, with the goal of delivering said equipment by 2022. The agency expects to pick a winner for this latest award by the end of this year.

SpaceX will launch Masten’s first lander to the Moon in 2022

SpaceX has secured a contract to act as the launch partner for Masten Space Systems, one of the companies awarded a NASA launch contract under that agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Masten’s first lunar mission is set to take pace 2022 if all goes to plan, and will take the company’s XL-1 lunar lander to the south pole of the Moon with NASA payloads including scientific experimentation instruments on board, as well as cargo from commercial passengers.

NASA’s CLPS program is part of its broader efforts to expand partnerships with commercial space companies in order to ultimately lower its costs by sharing providers with other customers from private industry and commercial ventures. It’s also a key staging component for NASA’s Artemis program, which ultimately aims to put the first American woman and the next American man on the surface of the Moon by 2024.

The science equipment on Masten’s lander will help the agency study the lunar south pole by gathering key data about the area. NASA’s Artemis III mission will aim to land in the same part of the Moon’s surface, and CLPS landers will help it to be informed about the conditions and prepared with resources left in place by some of the uncrewed landers.

So far, there are four planned lunar lander missions scheduled under CLPS, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander launch in June 2021, Intuitive Machines’ following shortly after in October 2021, Masten’s now set for December 2022, and Astrobotic’s VIPER launch of its larger Griffin lander in 2023. SpaceX has been contracted for the Intuitive Machines and Masten launches, while ULA’s Vulcan is set to take Astrobotic’s Peregrine vehicle to the Moon.

Blue Origin’s human lunar lander team delivers full-scale engineering mockup to NASA

Blue Origin and the members of its “national team” – Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper – have delivered a full-scale engineering prototype of their human lunar lander to NASA for the agency to examine and review as it readies to build the real thing for eventual use in NASA’s Artemis program Moon missions.

The Blew Origin crew lander is now ready to undergo testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This mock-up is not a functional version of the lander, but it does include full-sized components of the planned lander system, including the descent element that will be built by Blue Origin, and the ascent element that partner Lockheed Martin will be producing. Overall, the entire mock-up article measures just under 40-feet high.

The purpose of this engineering prototype is to allow for testing and simulation of crew interactions. Starting this early with the mock-up means that as they develop the eventual production lander, Blue Origin and its partners can gain valuable insights about aspects of the design including instrument and component layout, visibility through windows from the cabin, ergonomics of seating and entry and exit points and much more.

Simulation can help with a lot of the elements of spacecraft design, as can leveraging previous designs – both of which are things that Blue Origin and the national team are doing. But there’s a lot to learn that can only be gleaned through actual humans pretending to really use the spacecraft as they would on a mission, and many of those wouldn’t be caught by computer simulation or history lessons alone.

Blue Origin and its national team are one of three companies that won a first round of Human Lander System (HLS) contract awards from NASA. It’ll continue to flesh out this engineering mock-up over time, adding elements that will make it ever-closer to the final production model as development continues. Ultimately, it hopes to support NASA with its ambitious goal of landing the next American man and the first American woman on the surface of the Moon by 2024.

ispace reveals the final design of its lunar lander ahead of its first mission to the Moon in 2022

Japanese new space startup ispace has revealed the final design of its HAKUTO-R lunar lander, a spacecraft set to make its first touchdown on the Moon in 2022 if all goes to the updated plan (it had been set to fly in October 2021 until today). ispace is one of the companies selected by NASA for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to deliver various payloads to the Moon ahead of NASA planned human mission to the lunar surface in 2024.

The lander is just a bit taller than a person, at around seven and a half feet tall (it’s basically that wide and long as well). The design includes 4K color cameras that will beam back images throughout the mission, as well as fuel tanks for holding its propellant, solar panels for power generation, landing gear, thrusters and payload compartments for holding up to 66 lbs of experiments and other materials.

ispace also announced adjusted timing for its first lunar lander missions for HAKUTO-R as mentioned. The first will now take place in 2022, using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and carrying commercial payloads including equipment for conducting scientific experiments. The second is now set for 2023, and will carry a small rover that will survey the Moon and pave the way for potential long-term commercial investment on the lunar surface.

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NASA signs agreement with Japan to cooperate across Space Station, Artemis and Lunar Gateway projects

NASA has signed a new agreement with Japan that lays out plans for the two nations to cooperate on the International Space Station (continuing existing partnership between the countries there) as well as on NASA’s Artemis program, which includes missions in lunar space and to the lunar surface.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed the agreement with Government of Japan Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda on July 10. It’s a Joint Exploration Decoration of Intent (JEDI), which essentially commits the two countries to laying the groundwork for more concrete plans about how the two nations will work together on projects that will extend all the way to include both robotic and human exploration of the Moon .

Japan was one of the earliest countries to express their intent to participate as an international partner in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, all the way back in October 2019. Since then, a number of countries and agencies have expressed similar support, including Canada, which will contribute by building a third version of its Canadarm, the robotic manipulator that has been used on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and the European Space Agency.

This new agreement formalizes that arrangement, and from here you can expect both parties to begin to detail in more specificity what kinds of projects they’ll collaborate on. Japan has plans to launch a robotic space probe mission to the moons of Mars and return samples from Phobos, its largest natural satellite, with a launch schedule for 2024, and it has launched a lunar orbiter exploration spacecraft called SELENE, and is planning a lunar lander mission dubbed the ‘Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) for 2022 that will be its first lunar surface mission.

NASA picks Astrobotic to deliver its water-hunting robot rover to the Moon

NASA has selected a company to fly its VIPER Moon rover to the Moon, for a mission which will be a crucial step in its Artemis program as it will help the agency determine where and how it can establish a long-term presence on the lunar surface. NASA announced on Thursday that Astrobotic will be its commercial partner in delivering the payload, with the mission currently scheduled for a December, 2022 Moon surface landing.

VIPER stands for ‘Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover,’ and the roughly golf cart-sized robotic rover will be scouring the Moon’s South Pole region for water ice, as well as liquid water beneath the surface, if it exists. This is a key intermediary step for the Artemis program, which still intends to return the next American man and the first American woman to the lunar surface by 2024. Having a handy source of water will be an important part of establishing any long-term sustainable base on the Moon, since it can provide the necessary ingredients for a self-contained lunar fuel production facility.

NASA’s choice of Astrobotic for this mission is not surprising, since the agency has already contracted Astrobotic as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The company is set to transport scientific payloads to the lunar surface aboard its Peregrine lander for its first CLPS mission in 2021, using a ULA Vulcan rocket to get to the Moon. This is a separate contract, which as mentioned is timed for a 2022 window.