NASA wants ideas from private companies and the science community about instruments that can be used to explore and study the surface of the Moon. This morning, the space agency put out a formal Request for Information, asking for concepts of small science payloads that can be sent to the lunar surface relatively soon — between 2017 and 2020. The instruments would potentially be transported to the Moon on lunar landers that are currently being developed by private companies in the US.
Small science payloads that can be sent to the lunar surface between 2017 and 2020
"Multiple US companies are developing robotic lunar landing capabilities and have expressed plans to provide commercial cargo delivery services to the Moon in the near future," NASA writes in its RFI. "Information on lunar payloads that could be launched as early as 2017 would be valuable to NASA as it works to understand the potential role of the Moon in future exploration activities."
This information request is one of the few times in years that NASA has expressed a desire to send hardware to the surface of the Moon. Since 2010, the space agency has made it crystal clear that it’s focused on putting humans on Mars, and talk of landing on the lunar surface has been sparse if non-existent. But recently, NASA has been pivoting its gaze back to the Moon, viewing Earth’s satellite as a potential stepping stone for Mars. For instance, NASA is working with private companies to develop deep space habitats that can operate in a region of space around the Moon called cislunar space. The idea is that these cislunar habitats could potentially be used as spacecraft that transport humans to the Red Planet.
NASA wants to better understand the Moon’s environment
Now, NASA says it wants to better understand the Moon’s environment and whether or not it is a good stepping stone for human exploration as well. The agency wants to know if the Moon has resources that could be exploited for space travel, such as water that can be used to make fuel for spacecraft. NASA also wants to know how certain aspects of the lunar environment — like radiation exposure and dust — might affect the human body. And ultimately, NASA is curious about what it would take to work and live on the Moon’s surface.
"Though we have gathered a great deal of information over the decades about the Moon from the earliest robotic probes, from the Apollo missions, and more recently from spacecraft ... there is still much more that we need to learn," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a statement.
NASA is making it clear that it’s only looking for information on payload ideas; it doesn’t plan to award any contracts at the moment and is making no promises to send anything to the Moon just yet. But presumably once the submissions are received, NASA will decide whether or not to do a formal competition for payloads to go to the Moon. It’s similar to what the space agency has done in the past with its public-private partnerships, where NASA has asked for ideas from the private sector and then created competitions based on submissions.
An artist's rendering of the Moon Express MX-1 lander. (Moon Express)
If a formal competition does occur, NASA will likely select its favorite lunar payloads and find the right commercial rockets and landers that can take these payloads to the Moon’s surface. A few companies in recent years have said that they are working on lunar landers. One of the most vocal is Moon Express, which has ambitions of mining the lunar surface. Moon Express is involved with NASA's Lunar CATALYST program and has been developing a lunar lander called the MX-1 that it hopes to send to the Moon by 2017. The company has already received approval from the federal government to send the MX-1 to the lunar surface — something no other private spaceflight company has received before. And Moon Express says that future payloads selected by NASA could ride on its lander as early as next year.
Moon Express says it will help out with funding these payloads
As an extra show of faith, Moon Express says it will help out with funding these payloads too. In its RFI, NASA says participants should expect to provide a lot of their own funding to develop their payload concepts, but today Moon Express has announced a new funding initiative called the Lunar Scout Program. If NASA does decide to do a formal competition, Moon Express says it will give $500,000 for each payload that is selected by NASA to fly on the first three missions of the MX-1 lander.
"Moon Express is very excited and happy to announce our Lunar Scout Program which is intended to help lunar explorers get their science to the Moon." Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, tells The Verge. "Our money will help in the total cost. We can’t anticipate where it will help the most, but it will help."
But before all that can happen, NASA needs to hear people’s ideas first. And there isn’t much time if you want to participate. Payload providers have until 4PM ET on December 9th to submit their concepts.