November 17, 2021
NASA has announced it awarded Intuitive Machines of Houston a contract to deliver research, including science investigations and a technology demonstration, to the Moon in 2024. The commercial delivery is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative and the Artemis program.
Four investigations will be aboard the Nova-C lander, destined for Reiner Gamma, “one of the most distinctive and enigmatic natural features on the Moon,” said NASA. Known as a lunar swirl, Reiner Gamma is on the western edge of the Moon (as seen from Earth), and is one of the most visible lunar swirls. Scientists are looking to learn more about how lunar swirls form, and their relationship to the Moon’s magnetic field.
One of the four investigations is the Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration (CADRE, pictured at right), which consists of mobile robots programmed to work as an autonomous team to explore the lunar surface, collect data, and map different areas of the Moon in 3D. CADRE uses its inertial measurement unit (IMU), stereo cameras, and a Sun sensor to track the position of each robot as they explore the lunar surface. CADRE is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“This delivery to the Moon will help the U.S. expand our capabilities and learn more about this interesting region,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Observing lunar swirls can give us information about the Moon’s radiation environment and perhaps how to mitigate its effects. With more and more science and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface, we can help prepare for sustainable astronaut missions through Artemis.”
Intuitive Machines will receive $77.5 million for the contract, and is responsible for end-to-end delivery services, including payload integration, delivery from Earth to the surface of the Moon, and payload operations. This award is the company’s third task order award, the first of which is a delivery to Oceanus Procellarum on the Moon during the first quarter of 2022. The ward is the seventh surface delivery task award issued to a CLPS partner, NASA said.
“These investigations show how CLPS is capable of delivering payloads to the lunar surface that will address our primary scientific goals for lunar exploration and discovery,” said Chris Culbert, manager of the CLPS initiative. “We aim to learn more about lunar swirls and this payload manifest is designed to obtain data unique to the geographical feature of Reiner Gamma.”
The other three investigations include:
- Lunar Vertex, which is a combination of stationary lander payloads and a rover that will make detailed measurements of the magnetic field, plasma environment and regolith properties. The lander and rover data will augment observations collected in orbit. Combined, the observations will show how the lunar swirls form and evolve, and how they connect to local magnetic fields in the same regions. Lunar Vertex is led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
- MoonLIGHT retroflector reflects laser beams sent from Earth directly back from the Moon to receivers on Earth. This allows very precise measurement of the distances between the reflector and the ground station. This technique can be used to investigate relativity, the gravitational dynamics of the Earth-Moon system and the deep lunar interior. MoonLIGHT is managed by the European Space Agency.
- Lunar Space Environment Monitor (LUSEM) uses a pair of apertures to detect high-energy particles on the lunar surface. LUSEM will monitor variations in the near-surface space environment when the Moon is inside and outside Earth’s magnetotail – the trailing end of the magnetic fields surrounding our planet, which can serve as a buffer for incoming radiation. LUSEM is managed by the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI) in South Korea.
NASA said future payloads that may be delivered with CLPS could include other rovers, power sources, and science experiments, including technology demonstrations to later be infused into the Artemis program.