The Moon is many things: easy on the eyes, a timekeeper of months, and a portal into deep space.
Government space agencies have been using the Moon as a scientific playground on and off for more than 60 years. Now, with the private sector on board, they could be gearing up for their best years yet.
NASA is soon debuting a new private partnership Moon program. Through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), NASA plans to charter trips on new spacecraft from private companies. Much like a delivery service, these companies will provide agencies and special projects with frequent access to the lunar environment. Just this year alone, there are trips planned to visit all kinds of places on the Moon, from the familiar nearside to the enigmatic farside and down to the alluring ices of the lunar south pole. The year is already packed with several such flights.
Oh, and be forewarned that Frank Sinatra will leave many with constant earworms to the tune of Fly Me To The Moon as NASA will also attempt to send the first people back to the Moon since Apollo.
Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander
First up is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, currently scheduled to launch on January 8. If successful, the Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic will be the first of NASA’s private partners to successfully reach the Moon.
NASA hopes that one day Astrobotic and other companies could ferry equipment and supplies to the Moon rather than the space agency building its own Earth-Moon transit system.
Astrobotic’s six-foot-tall lander carries some 20 instruments (five of which belong to NASA) that will each study the lunar environment in different ways, whether measuring radiation or subsurface water.
In a somewhat risky move, Astrobotic’s first space trip will be onboard a never-before-flown rocket: the long-awaited Vulcan Centaur rocket, developed by United Launch Alliance (a joint production between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). During a November conference call with members of the media, Astrobotic and NASA stated they have full confidence that the launch will go smoothly as Vulcan Centaur is very similar to its rocket predecessors.
If all goes to schedule, Peregrine will land on the Moon’s Sinus Viscositatis (Bay of Stickiness) shortly after lunar local sunrise on February 23, and it’ll quickly get to work with a mission expected to last eight days.
Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 and IM-2
While Astrobotic will likely win the race with Peregrine I, Houston-based Intuitive Machines — another CLPS partner — could be a close second.
In mid-February, Intuitive Machines aims to launch its Nova-C lander for its IM-1 mission onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to reach the Malapert A crater at the lunar south pole.
Nova-C is 13 feet tall and loaded with several novelty payloads. The EagleCam will attempt to take the first space-landing selfie, and a Jeff Koons art cube containing 125 lunar phase miniatures will travel onboard as well. Nova-C will also carry an imaging suite called ILO-X, which will attempt to take the first picture of the Milky Way’s center from the surface of the Moon.
It will also take five NASA scientific instruments to the Moon, including a low-frequency radio receiver system that will sense charged particles on the lunar surface, as well as cameras to watch the plume generated during landing.
The company will attempt another CLPS mission, IM-2, later in 2024.
IM-2’s main objective is the delivery of PRIME-1, or Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1, which will carry an ice drill to assess the ice at the lunar south pole. Its secondary payload is Lunar Trailblazer, a NASA orbiter designed to survey the water cycle on the Moon.
China’s Chang’e-6 Lander
The novices will be joined two months later by Chang’e-6, the newest member of a tried and tested lunar exploration fleet from China.
The Chang’e missions borrow their names from the Chinese deity of the Moon. They’ve made several recent achievements. In 2019, Chang’e-4 delivered the first robotic rover ever to the lunar farside. In 2020, Chang’e-5 collected the first lunar samples to reach Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
Its successor, Chang’e-6, could launch as soon as May to collect samples that came from the Moon’s interior. The mission will fly atop a Chinese Long March 5 rocket and spend 53 days at Apollo crater in the lunar South Pole-Aitken basin, aiming to collect 4.4 pounds of material, according to The Planetary Society.
Japan’s ispace Hakuto-R Mission
NASA and Astrobotic were almost beaten to the finish line last year when the Japanese company ispace came daringly close to landing on the Moon. But just a short distance from the Moon’s surface, perhaps due to a lunar cliff’s elevation, their software misread their height. The Hakuto M1 lunar lander wound up crashing onto the surface after freefalling.
Now, ispace is aiming to launch its second Moon lander project in the last quarter of 2024.
“Mission 1…did not extinguish the flame in our hearts, but rather strengthened it, igniting it anew and providing the impetus to reinvigorate it quickly and flexibly for the missions that follow,” Takeshi Hakamada, ispace Founder and CEO, said in a statement published Monday.
The second mission, Hakuto-R, is being assembled. According to an ispace tweet published on December 28, engineers are currently working on the lunar lander's propulsion system, main body, and electrical systems.
The lander, called Resilience, will carry a rover as well. The company calls it a micro-sized rover, at roughly 10 inches tall. Resilience will explore and photograph the Moon’s surface with a small HD camera.
Astrobotic’s Griffin lander
When NASA’s highly-anticipated VIPER, short for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, flies to the Moon aboard an Astrobotic Griffin lander (another CLPS arrangement), it might outshine NASA’s more famous Martian rovers.
NASA is about halfway through building VIPER, officials said in an update published on December 29. It may launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at the end of 2024.
The project will sojourn to the lunar south pole to explore the potentially ice-packed region for 100 Earth days. The golf-cart-sized rover is designed to withstand the Moon’s harsh temperatures as it makes maps of the surface and subsurface ice to help NASA assess where this resource is concentrated. If human missions reach the Moon, they could hypothetically rely on the ice for intake and fuel.
NASA’s Artemis II mission
This year, humans are going to the Moon for the first time since Apollo.
At least, that is NASA’s goal. But getting there safely isn’t a simple matter of rinse and repeat: the astronauts that are currently training for the Artemis II mission will come back faster and hotter than any crew has ever done so in history.
At the end of 2022, the first Artemis mission flew with no passengers around the Moon and back to demonstrate that the Orion capsule could safely ferry one astronaut “dummy” and two robotic torso sensor devices to the farthest distance a human-rated spacecraft has ever flown.
NASA states on its website that astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Jeremy Hansen will fly no earlier than November 2024. Delays could easily push the mission into 2025. But this year is not off the table just yet.
Artemis II will launch onboard NASA’s Space Launch System mega rocket. The 10-day Artemis II mission will be entirely orbital – boot-planting on the Moon won’t happen until the following mission, Artemis III.
Firefly Space’s Blue Ghost lander
The debut year for private Moon ferries is packed with even more flights.
Texas-based Firefly Space, another CLPS NASA partner, aims to launch its Blue Ghost Mission 1 to the Moon sometime this year, too. The lander will ferry 10 NASA payloads to the Moon and is designed to enable their science work for two weeks, or the entire daytime of a lunar day. Some of its science work includes observing heat flow from the Moon’s interior and taking X-rays of the Earth’s magnetosphere.
Blue Ghost Mission 1 is aiming for Mare Crisium, located at the top right of the lunar nearside. The mission will launch onboard a Firefly rocket, as the company aims to provide end-to-end lunar transportation services.
Like a space elevator, these projects are on track to provide access to the Moon that is unprecedented.