Shocking many scientists, NASA has canceled its Resource Prospector, the agency’s only planned robotic mission to the moon. Angered scientists have already responded with an open letter to NASA calling on the space agency to maintain the program.
In December, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a policy directive ordering NASA to return astronauts to the moon. This makes the news of the Resource Prospector’s demise, which was first reported by The Verge on Friday, even more surprising, since it was NASA’s only lunar rover currently in development.
The open letter, written by the NASA advisory firm Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, or LEAG, asks NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to continue the mission they feel is crucial for bringing astronauts back on the moon’s surface. Not only is the project crucial for future moon landings, but LEAG claims the Resource Prospector is the key to finding potential volatile deposits on the moon’s polar region.
The Resource Prospector was a small rover designed to excavate hydrogen, oxygen, and water from the lunar poles. While other spacecraft have confirmed that water exists on the moon’s poles in the form of ice, only the Resource Prospector would have been able to examine this water ice up-close for extended periods of time, as well as other potentially volatile deposits. Without the rover, most of NASA’s data will rely on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently in the moon’s orbit, which can only offer limited measurements of the moon’s surface composition.
These deposits have extremely important exploration implications, as they could be viable resources to support not only human exploration into the Solar System but also a thriving lunar economy,” the letter says. LEAG argues that the Resource Prospector is best equipped to find matter that could lead to a vibrant “lunar economy,” one that SpaceX and other private space companies are already interested in mining.
Canceling Resource Prospector means that Elon Musk might have to wait a bit longer to establish his moon base, but LEAG argues that it also means NASA will have to start from scratch in order to get astronauts back on the moon.