NASA: Resource Prospector No Longer a Good Fit for Lunar Program

NASA: Resource Prospector No Longer a Good Fit for Lunar Program

NASA said today that it cancelled the Resource Prospector (RP) mission because it no longer is a good fit with its lunar exploration plans.  Some of the instruments planned for RP, which dates back to the George W. Bush Administration, will still fly, but on commercial landers.  Lunar scientists are dismayed by the decision, characterizing RP as a pathfinder for more capable prospecting landers to locate and mine water ice to support human exploration.

The action to cancel RP apparently was made on April 23, the first day on the job for new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, but NASA’s FY2019 budget request, released in February, made clear that the agency now is planning to focus on a decade-long series of small, mid-sized and large lunar landers using commercial spacecraft as much as possible.

The agency’s new “Exploration Campaign” graphic includes a decade-long series of small commercial robotic lunar landers beginning as early as next year.  They would be augmented by a “mid to large lander initiative toward human-rated lander” with a notional first launch in 2022.

Source: NASA

NASA has been working with three companies, Moon Express, Astrobotic, and Masten Space Systems, through the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Lunar CATALYST program to help them design small lunar landers/rovers for several years.  In the FY2019 budget request, it is proposing a new Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP) line item in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) to move forward with those and/or other companies on small landers/rovers with a payload of up to 200 kilograms.  The new line item is funded at $218 million per year for the next 5 years, with $200 million available for commercial partnerships and the rest for operations of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the Moon since 2009.

A separate line item in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) — Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities (ACSC) — would be funded at $116.5 million in FY2019, growing to $320.3 million in FY2023.  It will engage with commercial  partners in building the mid-sized (500 kilogram payload) and large (5,000-6,000 kilogram payload) landers.  RP has been an HEOMD program, and NASA’s FY2019 budget book states that HEOMD will no longer pursue “a potential independent Resource Prospecting (RP) mission” but instead integrate its measurement objectives into the new LDEP and ACSC programs.

NASA released a draft Request for Proposals (RFP) on April 27 for Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) to expand the commercial small lander effort.  An Industry Day will be held next week.   It also released a Request for Information (RFI) to gauge commercial interest in Lunar Surface Transportation Capability that would evolve to meet the need for human-class landers.

The question is whether RP is still needed in this new framework.  NASA says no, but members of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Advisory Group (LEAG), which represents the lunar science community, say yes.

In an April 26 letter, LEAG Chair Samuel Lawrence  (Arizona State University) and LEAG Emeritus Chair and Professor Clive Neal (University of Notre Dame) asked Bridenstine to reconsider.  “RP has been designed as a prospecting mission, to fill Strategic Knowledge Gaps in the extent, accessibility and composition of polar ice as a human-exploitable resource,” they wrote, and therefore should be part of HEOMD, not SMD.  Furthermore, it is a “pathfinder rover that will inform the next generation of more capable prospecting rovers.”

They said they had written to the heads of HEOMD and SMD in March “after the redirection for this initially HEOMD-led mission to be shared” with SMD, but “[w]e now understand RP was cancelled on 23 April 2018 and the project has been asked to close down by the end of May. … This action is viewed with both incredulity and dismay by our community...”

In announcing the draft CLPS RFP, however, NASA said RP’s time has passed. “This project was intended as a one-time effort to explore a specific location on the Moon, and as designed, now is too limited in scope for the agency’s expanded lunar exploration focus. NASA’s return to the Moon will include many missions to locate, extract and process elements across bigger areas of the lunar surface. The agency is evolving Resource Prospector to fit into its broader exploration strategy, and selected robotic instruments will be among the early deliveries to the Moon on CLPS missions.”

RP began as the Regolith and Environmental Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction (RESOLVE) project under the George W. Bush Administration when the Constellation program was underway to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020.  The intent is to locate water ice that can be mined and used to support human exploration.

Water is needed for human survival and the hydrogen and oxygen can be extracted and used as rocket fuel and air.  In testimony to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on September 7, 2017 Colorado School of Mines Professor George Sowers called water “the oil of space” because “if you have water, you have hydrogen and oxygen, which are the most efficient chemical propellants known.”

The Planetary Society reports that RP’s projected mission cost was $250 million for the instruments and launch vehicle.  That did not include a lander/rover to carry the instruments.  That was to be provided by Japan or Canada, but they withdrew as support for the mission waned during the Obama Administration’s focus on Mars instead of the Moon.

In a statement today, NASA said it invested $22 million in RESOLVE before it evolve into the RP project in 2014 and $80 million since then refining the mission concept and undertaking mission-specific risk reduction activities.

On April 27, Bridenstine tweeted that NASA is committed to launching instruments that were planned for RP.

NASA’s statement today said that an agency review of which instruments will be flown is ongoing.  The full statement is as follows.

NASA’s early prototype work on the Regolith and Environmental Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction or RESOLVE project, which was an integrated set of general prospecting payloads, provided the basis for the initial instruments for the Resource Prospector (RP) mission concept. The agency invested an estimated $22 million in RESOLVE’s early technology development/prototyping efforts. Since the RP team was formed in 2014 after the completion of a mission concept review, NASA has invested an estimated total of $80 million toward refining the mission concept and mission-specific risk reduction activities. NASA’s overall Resource Prospector work toward risk reduction activities to advance instrument developments, component technologies including rover components, and innovation mission operations concepts will help inform future missions. An agency review to send selected instruments from Resource Prospector to the Moon is ongoing. — NASA


Correction: The Lunar CATALYST program is managed by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, not the Space Technology Mission Directorate, and awarded contracts to Masten Space Systems in addition to Astrobotic and Moon Express.

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