Trump said to propose roughly $3 billion NASA budget boost for 2021

President Donald Trump is set to request a budget of $25.6 billion for NASA for its fiscal 2021 operating year, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. It’s looking for nearly $3 billion more than the $22.6 billion NASA had for its current fiscal year, and the bulk of the new funding is said to be earmarked for development of new human lunar landers.

This represents one of the single largest proposed budget increases for NASA in a couple of decades, but reflects Trump’s renewed commitment to the agency’s efforts as expressed during the State of the Union address he presented on February 4, during which he included a request to Congress to “fully fund the Artemis program to ensure that the next man and first woman on the Moon will be American astronauts.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has frequently repeated the agency’s goal of sending the first American woman and the next American man to the surface of the Moon by 2024, a timeline the current mission cadence of the Artemis program is designed against. Bridenstine has previously discussed esimated total costs for getting back to the Moon by 2024 at between $20-30 billion, and the Administrator was pressed by a House Appropriations Subcommittee late last year about a $1.6 billion late-stage add-on request for the agency’s fiscal 2020 budget.

The WSJ also reports that NASA will be looking to solicit bids on lunar landers as part of its 2021 budgetary plans, which echoes its previous efforts with the launch vehicles for the Artemis program. Already, NASA is working with a host of commercial partners on an authorized vendor list for robotic, uncrewed lunar lander mission to deliver experiments and supplies to the lunar surface starting in 2021.

NASA released a broad agency announcement for industry comment regarding a human lander system for Artemis last July, along with a revised version in August, and then opened a call for formal proposals in September 2019. A couple of winners for a human-rated lander to carry NASA astronauts are expected, with the agency saying that the time that the first company to complete its lander will provide the vehicle for the 2024 landing, while the second will support another mission in 2025. with potential competitors vying for the prize including legacy companies like Boeing, as well as newer entrants like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Trump is set to submit his administration’s budget on February 10.

NASA seeks Moon rover concepts from industry

NASA is looking for input from industry – including vehicle makers and tech companies not necessarily already in the space business – as to what future lunar rovers should look like. This is part of its Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the surface of the Moon, including the first woman and the next American man.

This ask includes two formal ‘Requests for Information (RFI): One seeking ideas about robotic rovers designed for automated exploration, and another looking for concepts and ideas that could lead to the development of a lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) that’s rated for human use, with astronauts able to drive them around on the Moon while wearing protective pressurized suits (meaning they’re essentially looking for open-top designs).

NASA’s goal with these vehicles is to help astronauts explore beyond their future landing site, which will be somewhere eon the lunar South Pole, and be able to extend the range of terrain they can access to conduct their experiments and gather data. The robot vehicles will support in a similar fashion, while also ideally being able to reach where humans can’t necessarily reach.

In its explanation of the RFI, NASA notes that it’s looking for expertise from industry players involved in all types of vehicle production, including all-terrain, electric and other kinds of ground craft. That could include autonomous car companies and innovative mobility tech startups, for instance.

NASA plans to address questions during a virtual industry forum in case anyone’s seeking more info, and submissions are due on February 26 for the LTV rover RFI, while there’s a little longer to contribute to the robotic rover RFI, which closes on March 6.

The agency issued a similar RFI for commercial robotic lunar landers in 2018, prior to announcing its Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract program in February 2019. Given that model, it may indeed be the case that this RFI ultimately leads to some kind of commercial partner program for rovers to be used in future NASA Moon missions as well.

Rocket startup Firefly signs satellite constellation launch mission with Satlantis

Rocket launch startup Firefly Aerospace has signed a new agreement with Satlantis, a maker of Earth observation and remote sensing payloads for satellite-based operation. Firefly will launch a constellation of small satellites on behalf of Atlantis that will provide high-res, multispectral imaging of Earth from low-Earth orbit.

Firefly is still in the development and testing phase of their first launch vehicle, the Alpha rocket and spacecraft. The company intends to fly Alpha for the first time sometime this year, and the agreement singed today with Satlantis specifies a 2022 timeframe for the mission.

Alpha is a two-stage rocket that uses a carbon composite material for its primary construction. It’s around 95-feet tall, and can carry approximately 2,200 lbs to low-Earth orbit. Like Rocket Lab, Firefly’s goal is to provide an affordable option for small satellite customers to have dedicated launches, rather than relying on having to book ride share missions, but it offers considerably more payload capacity.

Firefly has just begun running its “hot” fire tests of its engine with the vehicle vertical early in 2020, but it did encounter a setback at the end of January with a fire on the launch platform following the first of these tests. Firefly said the fire was due to a fuel leak, but continues work on Alpha and Firefly CEO Tom Markusic told KVUE that it shouldn’t affect their goal of having a first flight for the rocket by mid-year.

Firefly Aerospace investigating a fire that resulted from a test of its Alpha rocket’s engines

Space launch startup Firefly Aerospace encountered a setback as it kicked off the first “hot” tests of its Alpha launch vehicle’s engines – a fire resulted from its first test engine fire. The fire occurred at 6:23 PM local time on Wednesday during the first planned 5-second fire in a series of test firings Firefly intended to run for Alpha at its Briggs, Texas facility. The fire was located “in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage,” Firefly has said in a new statement about the incident.

Firefly’s engineers immediately stopped the engine test, and the facility’s fire suppression system put out the fire, the company says. The team is currently reviewing data around the test to identify the cause, and will perform a complete investigation to figure out what’s going on and then report those results, according to the statement. Firefly also says that “at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger” and adds that it’s working with local emergency response and governing authorities throughout the investigation.

The launch startup has encountered setbacks before, though its biggest previous hurdle was of a different nature: Firefly Space Systems filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017, before returning with a slightly different corporate identity as Firefly Aerospace later that year, still under the leadership of founder and current CEO Tom Markusic. Firefly was rescued at least in part thanks to a lifeline investment from Noosphere Ventures, and said at the time it had enough runway to fund it fully through development and flight of Alpha, an expendable launch vehicle that will be able to delivery as much as a metric ton to low-Earth orbit.

This fire is a setback, but it does appear that it was at least quickly contained and didn’t result in any kind of explosion or total destruction of the test launch vehicle. It’s too soon to say what this will mean for Firefly’s timelines, which at the end of last year, anticipated a first launch of Alpha sometime between this February and March.

Anomalies are part of the process of developing new launch systems and spacecraft, so this isn’t necessarily a major blow for Firefly – depending, of course, on what the investigation reveals regarding the ultimate cause.

Firefly’s statement on the incident is included in full below.

Firefly Aerospace maintains a 200-acre manufacturing and test facility in Briggs, Texas, 27 miles north of its headquarters.

On January 22, 2020, test engineers were conducting a planned test of the first stage of the company’s “Alpha” launch vehicle. The test was to be the first in a series of propulsion tests to verify design and operation of the stage, and involved a short, 5-second firing of the stage’s four engines.

At 6:23 pm local time, the stage’s engines were fired, and a fire broke out in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage. The 5-second test was immediately aborted and the test facility’s fire suppression system extinguished the fire. The cause of the anomaly is under investigation. Firefly engineers are reviewing test data from the stage to identify potential causes for the test failure, and Firefly will share results of that investigation once it is complete.

Firefly is committed to workplace safety, and at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger. Firefly is coordinating closely with local authorities and emergency response personnel as it investigates the anomaly and refines its contingency procedures.

NASA reveals the payloads for the first commercial Moon cargo deliveries

NASA has finalized the payloads for its first cargo deliveries scheduled to be carried by commercial lunar landers, vehicles created by companies the agency selected to take part in its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In total, there are 16 different payloads, which consist of a number of difference science experiments and technology experiments, that will be carried by landers built by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines. Both of these landers are scheduled to launch next year, carrying their cargo to the Moon’s surface and helping prepare the way for NASA’s mission to return humans to the Moon by 2024.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine is set to launch aboard a rocket provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will make its own lunar trip aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Both landers will carry two of the payloads on the list, including a Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA) that is basically a mirror-based precision location device for situating the lander itself; and a Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) – a laser-based sensor that can provide precision navigation during descent and touchdown. Both of these payloads are being developed by NASA to ensure safe, controlled and specifically targeted landing of spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, and their use here be crucial in building robust lunar landing systems to support Artemis through the return of human astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

Besides those two payloads, everything else on either lander is unique to one vehicle or the other. Astrobotic is carrying more, but its Peregrine lander can hold more cargo – its payload capacity tops out at around 585 lbs, whereas the Nova-C can carry a maximum of 220 lbs. The full list of what each lander will have on board is available below, as detailed by NASA.

Overall, NASA has 14 total contractors that could potentially provide lunar payload delivery services through its CLPS program. That basically amounts to a list of approved vendors, who then bid on whatever contracts the agency has available for this specific need. Other companies on the CLPS list include Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and more. Starting with these two landers next year, NASA hopes to fly around two missions per year each year through the CLPS program.

Astrobotic Payloads

  • Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL): SEAL will investigate the chemical response of lunar regolith to the thermal, physical and chemical disturbances generated during a landing, and evaluate contaminants injected into the regolith by the landing itself. It will give scientists insight into the how a spacecraft landing might affect the composition of samples collected nearby. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.
  • Photovoltaic Investigation on Lunar Surface (PILS): PILS is a technology demonstration that is based on an International Space Station test platform for validating solar cells that convert light to electricity. It will demonstrate advanced photovoltaic high-voltage use for lunar surface solar arrays useful for longer mission durations. It is being developed at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS): The LETS radiation sensor will collect information about the lunar radiation environment and relies on flight-proven hardware that flew in space on the Orion spacecraft’s inaugural uncrewed flight in 2014. It is being developed at NASA Johnson.
  • Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS): NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide and methane – all resources that could potentially be mined from the Moon — while also mapping surface temperature and changes at the landing site. It is being developed at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
  • Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo): MSolo will identify low-molecular weight volatiles. It can be installed to either measure the lunar exosphere or the spacecraft outgassing and contamination. Data gathered from MSolo will help determine the composition and concentration of potentially accessible resources. It is being developed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • PROSPECT Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) for Lunar Surface Volatiles: PITMS will characterize the lunar exosphere after descent and landing and throughout the lunar day to understand the release and movement of volatiles. It was previously developed for ESA’s (European Space Agency) Rosetta mission and is being modified for this mission by NASA Goddard and ESA.
  • Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS): NSS will search for indications of water-ice near the lunar surface by measuring how much hydrogen-bearing materials are at the landing site as well as determine the overall bulk composition of the regolith there. NSS is being developed at NASA Ames.
  • Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS): NMLS will use a neutron spectrometer to determine the amount of neutron radiation at the Moon’s surface, and also observe and detect the presence of water or other rare elements. The data will help inform scientists’ understanding of the radiation environment on the Moon. It’s based on an instrument that currently operates on the space station and is being developed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • Fluxgate Magnetometer (MAG): MAG will characterize certain magnetic fields to improve understanding of energy and particle pathways at the lunar surface. NASA Goddard is the lead development center for the MAG payload.

Intuitive Machines Payloads

  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1): LN-1 is a CubeSat-sized experiment that will demonstrate autonomous navigation to support future surface and orbital operations. It has flown on the space station and is being developed at NASA Marshall.
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS): SCALPSS will capture video and still image data of the lander’s plume as the plume starts to impact the lunar surface until after engine shut off, which is critical for future lunar and Mars vehicle designs. It is being developed at NASA Langley, and also leverages camera technology used on the Mars 2020 rover.
  • Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES): ROLSES will use a low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height. These measurements will aide future exploration missions by demonstrating if there will be an effect on the antenna response or larger lunar radio observatories with antennas on the lunar surface. In addition, the ROLSES measurements will confirm how well a lunar surface-based radio observatory could observe and image solar radio bursts. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.

NASA adds SpaceX, Blue Origin and more to list of companies set to make deliveries to the surface of the Moon

NASA has added five companies to the list of vendors that are cleared to bid on contracts for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This list, which already includes nine companies from a previous selection process, now adds SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. All of these companies can now place bids on NASA payload delivery to the lunar surface.

This basically means that these companies (which join Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper Laboratory, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond) can build and fly lunar landers in service of NASA missions. They’ll compete with one another for these contracts, which will involve lunar surface deliveries of resources and supplies to support NASA’s Artemis program missions, the first major goal of which is to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

These providers are specifically chosen to support delivery of heavier payloads, including “rovers, power sources, science experiments” and more, like the NASA VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which is hunting water on the Moon. All of these will be used both to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface for astronautics to live and work from, as well as key research that needs to be completed to make getting and staying there a viable reality.

Artist’s concept of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander

NASA has chosen to contract out rides to the Moon instead of running its own as a way to gain cost and speed advantages, and it hopes that these providers will be able to also ferry commercial payloads on the same rides as its own equipment to further defray the overall price tag. The companies will bid on these contracts, worth up to $2.6 billion through November 2028 in total, and NASA will select a vendor for each based on cost, technical feasibility and when they can make it happen.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress that it would be partnering with Draper, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, for an end-to-end lunar landing system. SpaceX, meanwhile, revealed that it will be targeting a lunar landing of its next spacecraft, the Starship, as early as 2022 in an effort to help set the stage for the 2024-targeted Artemis landing.