Western Slope Skies: Lunar Delivery Driver
Back when our beloved western cities were still young and their skies still dark, customers waited weeks or even months for basic household items to reach their local mercantile shelves.
For a while, NASA’s system for delivering scientific instruments, rovers, and equipment to the moon was a bit like those early western stores. NASA would announce a new mission, work hard to prepare, set a launch date, and almost always reschedule.
The delays were often due to lack of funding. A mission started with a modest budget, but over time, changes to project logistics increased the cost. The result was an uncertain mission schedule.
Just as western commerce evolved to provide items in a more timely manner, NASA saw a need to increase efficiency in their lunar exploration projects. So, in 2018, NASA formed the Commercial Lunar Payload Service program (CLPS for short). The program invites private companies to compete to send NASA’s payloads to the moon for them. Think DoorDash, but for outer space.
A “payload” refers to the items a rocket carries - things like research equipment, scientific instruments, and even astronauts. 14 companies are currently approved to bid on NASA’s payload contracts. This private industry competition should lower project costs and speed up lunar exploration.
The first CLPS projects will launch soon. In May, Astrobiotic Technology will use their Peregrine-1 lander to deliver 28 payloads to the moon. 14 of these are for NASA. The NASA payloads include a lander that will study how landings impact lunar soils, a device to measure radiation, and a spectrometer that can scan the moon for possible signs of life - that is, water and organic gasses. Non-NASA items include small rovers and instruments from astronomy teams around the world, as well as less scientific items such as time capsules for DHL shipping, Doge Coin cryptocurrency, and the famous YouTuber “Mr. Beast.”
In June, the Intuitive Machines Nova-C rover will bring 12 payloads, 5 of which are for NASA, to the lunar south pole, allowing us to explore this area for the first time. The rover will carry more equipment to study lunar landings as well as tools that will support future manned missions to the moon.
These upcoming projects can help us better understand Earth’s origin, aid in the search for extraterrestrial life, and provide a testing area for potential human trips to Mars. With each delivery, the Commercial Lunar Payload Service program unites more individuals around the reality that the moon belongs to all of us.
Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society and KVNF Community Radio. This episode was written and voiced by Gina Loewen.