Moon Monday #70: NASA’s brilliant move for crewed Moon landings, and all lunar updates from last week

NASA’s new plan to keep sending humans to the Moon

On March 23, NASA announced a change in strategy for one of the most important pieces of sustaining human presence on the Moon—ferrying Artemis astronauts to and fro the lunar surface after the first crewed landing on a SpaceX Starship in 2025. While NASA was previously planning to award at least two sustainable, commercial crewed lunar lander proposals by U.S. companies under the Lunar Exploration Transportation Services (LETS) program, of which SpaceX was a contender, the agency is now pursuing two parallel paths.

  • NASA has extended SpaceX’s original contract to land the first Artemis astronauts on the Moon, by exercising ‘Appendix H Option B’, to include another crewed landing with an upgraded Starship lunar lander. This Starship will have enhanced lander capabilities that NASA desires, and will co-fund development of, such as supporting longer stays, carrying more astronauts and science & technology payloads to the surface, and the ability to dock with the NASA-led Gateway lunar station.
  • NASA will seek proposals from companies other than SpaceX later this year to select another similarly capable lander. The selected company will be awarded a fixed-price, milestone-based contract, just like SpaceX’s case, to demonstrate an uncrewed lunar landing and crewed-landing-readiness by 2027. This will ensure competition while providing NASA redundancy in transporting astronauts and large amounts cargo to the Moon in all future Artemis flights, something demonstrated to be a good model at the International Space Station.

May I note just how brilliant this move by NASA is. The agency now gets to continue to tap into Starship’s potential for their own needs by ensuring continued system upgrades while also enabling healthy competition to keep incessant (and sometimes hypocritical) U.S. Congress complaints at bay.

An illustration of SpaceX’s Lunar Starship that will land the first Artemis astronauts on the Moon this decade. SpaceX will upgrade the lander for NASA’s future, more ambitious crewed missions. Credit: SpaceX

The new direction for crewed lunar landers does build on progress being made by NASA’s cumulative $146 million funding last year to Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and Dynetics to specifically conduct risk reduction studies on their otherwise good lunar lander proposals.

ISRO continues to bag NASA support for Chandrayaan

Shared as a small note in the February monthly summary of India’s Department of Space is ISRO and NASA’s signing of an agreement in February to use the latter’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to support communications for the Chandrayaan 3 Moon landing mission later this year. The agreement also continues support for the active Chandrayaan 2 orbiter. ISRO uses its own Indian Deep Space Network as a primary means for communicating with its planetary spacecraft but partners with NASA and other agencies for backup and secondary options. India’s Chandrayaan 1 orbiter had DSN support too.

An artist’s impression of Chandrayaan 2’s lander and rover on the Moon. Since the mission’s landing part failed, India is reattempting it with Chandrayaan 3. Credit: ISRO

After India’s Chandrayaan 2 lander unfortunately failed in the final mission phase, ISRO undertook a repeat mission with Chandrayaan 3, this time with upgrades such as software improvements, strengthened legs, and better power and communication systems. The mission will also have an orbiter to propel the lander to the Moon as well as to relay communications during and after landing. The Chandrayaan 2 orbiter will serve as a backup (and secondary) relay provider. The Chandrayaan 3 lander will carry, among other experiments, a thermal probe and a seismometer to study the Moon’s interior. Being a repeat of Chandrayaan 2’s landing attempt, Chandrayaan 3’s landing region is expected to be in a near-polar lunar highland too. As such, its rover will have a pair of spectrometers to determine what the ancient lunar crust is made of.

For a mission launching this year, and a critical one at that, it’s frustrating as an Indian to see ISRO not even have a one-pager on their website about Chandrayaan 3.

Firefly selects goldilocks landing site for its first Moon mission

Firefly has selected the landing site for their first lunar mission in September 2023 part of NASA’s CLPS program. Their 2-meter tall Blue Ghost lander, carrying 155 kilograms of NASA and commercial payloads, will attempt to touchdown in a landing ellipse centered at 18.56°N, 61.81°E, which lies in the lava plains of Mare Crisium as required by NASA. The landing site selection process involved down-selecting sites within Crisium based on some of the following main criteria.

  • Analyze data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Earth’s Arecibo radar to find areas with the lowest density of large craters (> 2 meters), gentle slopes of less than 5°, and no boulders at the 1-2-meter scale for a safe landing
  • Take into account other engineering requirements such as having an obstruction-free line of sight from the lander to the Sun and Earth
  • Balancing (as is usual) several conflicting requirements from various scientific instruments onboard

This completes another milestone for Firefly after successfully passing NASA’s Critical Design Review in October 2021, which allowed it to start building the lander hardware.

Firefly’s first Moon mission’s landing site within Mare Crisium on the Moon, marked by a blue dot. Click to explore on a map. Credit: LROC Quickmap

The 10 NASA instruments onboard the mission not only span a spectrum of purposes but many of them are first of a kind. For example, the spacecraft will have hardware for NASA’s first attempt to get a GPS lock from the Moon. One of the lander’s legs will feature PlanetVac, a low-cost soil sampling technology partially funded by The Planetary Society to enable future sample return missions from the Moon, Mars and other planetary bodies. A sounder instrument onboard, a flight spare from NASA’s MAVEN orbiter at Mars, will study local electric and magnetic fields with high sensitivity to infer the structure of the Moon’s interior. A probe will dig 2 to 3 meters below the surface to investigate heat flow from the Moon's interior.

Metalysis’ progress on tech to extract lunar oxygen

Earlier this month, the UK announced £218,000 in funding to the British metallurgy company Metalysis and their partners for an end-to-end demonstration of the company’s reactor which will efficiently extract nearly all oxygen from collected lunar soil in a future mission. More specifically, the funding is to understand the nature of uncertainties in several areas of the whole process. It follows previous funding part of ESA’s Space Resources Strategy initiative, which allowed Metalysis to optimize their extraction process. A version of Metalysis’ oxygen extractor was recently selected via Thales Alenia to fly on a ESA mission no earlier than 2030 for a demonstration.

Having this ability is crucial for lunar habitats to ultimately survive without constant resupply from Earth. Based on Metalysis’ process, 1.5 litres of lunar soil volume would provide enough oxygen for one astronaut to breathe for 24 hours. This high oxygen yield also opens up the possibility to generate oxygen at the Moon in sufficient quantities to allow future rockets to be fueled there itself for return to Earth or to travel further ahead. The process will also provide us valuable metallic alloys as byproducts to use for manufacturing and constructing things on the Moon.

Left: A pile of simulated lunar soil. Right: The same pile after nearly all the oxygen has been extracted from it, leaving behind a mixture of metal alloys. Credits: ESA / Beth Lomax / University of Glasgow

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