Awards for New Technologies and Another CLPS Mission Keep NASA Humming

Awards for New Technologies and Another CLPS Mission Keep NASA Humming

Although 75 percent of its workforce is working from home due to the coronavirus, NASA continues to press forward with awarding contracts for development of new technologies and sending robotic landers to the Moon.  Yesterday it selected 23 early-stage technologies for further study and today it awarded Masten Space Systems the next Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract to deliver small payloads to the surface of the Moon.

The 23 technology awards are through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate.  NIAC encourages researchers in NASA, industry and academia to think about breakthrough solutions that could enable and transform future space missions.

Selected through a peer review process, NIAC concepts are funded in three progressive phases beginning with 9-month studies (Phase I) that can lead to 2-year concept development grants (Phase II) and then to a second 2-year grant for further concept exploration and development leading to transition into NASA, other government, or commercial programs (Phase III).

NASA just selected 16 concepts for Phase I studies, plus six for Phase II and one for Phase III.  The total award value for all of them is $7 million.  Phase I studies receive $125,000; Phase II, $500,000; and Phase III, $2 million.

The single Phase III award went to Slava Turyshev of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for further study of a concept to image Earth-like planets outside the solar system (exoplanets) using a solar gravity lens.  NIAC program executive Jason Derleth noted it is the only the third Phase III award in NIAC’s history and could lead to the ability to image an exoplanet with the same resolution as the iconic Earthrise photo taken of Earth by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968.

Illustration of how a solar gravity lens telescope would image an exoplanet. The technology concept received Phase I, II and III awards from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Credits: NASA JPL/Slava Turyshev

NIAC awards are for concepts that might be used a decade or more from now. The CLPS award to Masten is the exact opposite.  It is a service contract, not for development of new technologies, and the mission will take place in just two years.

CLPS is designed to put very small science or technology payloads on the surface of the Moon as part of the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. NASA provides only payloads and money.  The contractor must provide the lander and launch vehicle and is encouraged to find non-NASA customers as well.

Fourteen companies won Indefinite Delivery-Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts from NASA that make them eligible to bid on CLPS task orders as they become available.  NASA awarded the first three task orders last year to Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond, although the latter withdrew soon thereafter.  Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are supposed to launch their landers next year. Astrobotic was awarded $79.5 million and Intuitive Machines $77 million.

This new award to Masten Space Systems is for a launch of its XL-1 robotic lander in 2022.  It will carry eight NASA payloads with nine science and technology instruments to the Moon’s South Pole, a region of special interest for scientific research and resource exploration.  The $75.9 million contract is for delivery of the payloads to the lunar surface, including payload integration and launch, and operation on the lunar surface for at least 12 days.

Illustration of Masten’s XL-1 lander. Credit: Masten Space Systems.

The nine NASA instruments are:

  • Lunar Compact Infrared Imaging System (L-CIRiS):  a radiometer to explore the Moon’s surface composition, map its surface temperature distribution, and demonstrate the instrument’s feasibility for future lunar resource utilization activities.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS):  a sensor to measure the radiation environment on the Moon’s surface.
  • Heimdall:  a single digital video recorder and four cameras (a wide-angle descent imager, a narrow-angle regolith imager, and two wide-angle panoramic imagers) to model the properties of the Moon’s regolith and characterize and map geologic features.
  • MoonRanger:  a small robotic rover to demonstrate the ability to move quickly across long distances on the lunar surface with autonomous navigation and without the ability to communicate with Earth in real time. The less than 30 pound (13.6 kilogram) rover also will carry the Neutron Spectrometer System to measure the concentration of hydrogen in the Moon’s regolith – a possible indication of the existence of buried water.
  • Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo):  a device to identify gases coming off a lander during touchdown to help scientists understand what elements are coming from the lunar surface and which ones are introduced by a lander itself.
  • Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS):  an instrument to characterize the variability of the lunar soils and detect volatiles such as methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and water.
  • Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA): eight small mirrors to measure distance and support landing accuracy.
  • Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering, and Probing of Lunar Regolith (SAMPLR): a robotic arm that will collect samples of lunar regolith and demonstrate the use of a robotic scoop that can filter and isolate particles of different sizes. It makes use of a flight spare from the Mars Exploration Rover project that produced the Spirit and Opportunity robotic Mars rovers.

Masten CEO Sean Mahoney said the company is “thrilled to have NASA as our anchor customer.”  It hopes to have commercial customers as well.  The mass of the NASA payloads totals 80 kilograms, but the lander has “hundreds of kilograms of additional capacity available” according to the company’s press release.

Company founder and CTO Dave Masten said the XL-1 builds on “over a decade of experience in vertical takeoff and vertical landing technology.” It is “directly evolved from the Xombie and Xoie landers which won the NASA Centennial Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X-Prize Challenge in 2009.”

Although the United States, Soviet Union and China have successfully landed many spacecraft on the lunar surface, including six U.S. Apollo crews, it is no mean feat.  Attempts by an Israeli non-profit, Space IL,  and by the Indian Space Research Organisation both failed last year.  NASA officials insist that they understand the risk and that not all of the CLPS missions may be successful.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen liken it to “taking shots on goal” and the success rate may be only 50 percent.

All of NASA is on mandatory telework because of COVID-19 except for mission essential personnel.  In a message to employees last week, Bridenstine said 75 percent of the workforce was working from home, which means 25 percent are still on-site at various NASA facilities across the country.

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