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Resource Prospector
A prototype for the Resource Prospector rover undergoes field testing. (NASA via YouTube)

An influential group of advisers on lunar exploration says NASA is canceling its Resource Prospector mission to explore the moon’s surface in the 2020s — and urged the agency’s newly sworn-in administrator, Jim Bridenstine, to reverse the decision.

In response, NASA pledged today that “selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the moon” as part of an expanded robotic campaign that will make use of commercial landers and rovers.

The tumult over the $250 million mission comes as Bridenstine and the White House’s National Space Council are ramping up their back-to-the-moon campaign. Resource Prospector appears to have been caught up in that campaign’s fast-moving paradigm shifts.

In a letter addressed to Bridenstine, members of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group said they were told that the Resource Prospector mission was canceled this week, and that the project had to be closed down by the end of May.

“It is critical that NASA provide strong leadership in documenting that lunar surface return is being actively pursued,” LEAG chairman Samuel Lawrence and emeritus chair Clive Neal wrote. “Cancellation of the only NASA lunar surface mission currently under development to obtain strategic data from the moon’s polar regions is not the way to signal that intention.”

The letter came to light even as Bridenstine sent out a tweet saying he was “excited to get to work on our plan to sustainably return America to the surface of the moon, starting with an aggressive robotic program.”

Lawrence, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, deferred comment on the controversy when contacted by GeekWire via email.

Neal told GeekWire that canceling Resource Prospector — which would be designed to rove around areas of the moon’s polar regions, drill out samples of water ice and analyze them — “seems out of step” with the Trump administration’s heightened interest in lunar exploration.

“We were a little disturbed,” said Neal, who is an engineering professor at the University of Notre Dame. “And I’m being deliberately ironic there.”

He said the scientific instruments for the mission already have undergone testing. The lander and the rover, however, are still in the preliminary design phase. The most recent mission plan called for launch in 2022.

The LEAG letter suggested that Resource Prospector was being canceled because responsibility was transferred from the NASA directorate in charge of human exploration to the science mission directorate, and that the aims and budgetary support for the mission were judged to be out of sync with the science directorate’s objectives.

Resource Prospector’s main task is to determine how to take advantage of lunar ice deposits to produce drinkable water, breathable oxygen and rocket fuel for future moon settlements. In their pitch to restart the mission, Lawrence and Neal pointed out that analyzing those deposits could bring scientific payoffs as well.

The statement that NASA issued today suggests that the agency will continue to pursue the objectives of the Resource Prospector mission, but not in the way that was previously envisioned:

“NASA is developing an exploration strategy to meet the agency’s expanded lunar exploration goals. Consistent with this strategy, NASA is planning a series of progressive robotic missions to the lunar surface. In addition, NASA has released a request for information on approaches to evolve progressively larger landers leading to an eventual human lander capability. As part of this expanded campaign, selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the moon. This exploration campaign reinforces Space Policy Directive 1, which calls for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, including returning humans to the moon for long-term exploration.”

Bridenstine himself underscored that view of the road ahead in a follow-up tweet:

NASA’s lander program is expected to focus on commercial capability, starting with spacecraft that can land up to 500 kilograms, then moving to medium-size landers (500-1,000 kilograms) and large landers (5,000-6,000 kilograms) in the mid-2020s.

Neal said he was not aware of any commercial lunar landers on the drawing boards that could handle the 300-kilogram payload for Resource Prospector by 2022.

Commercial landers with that capability have been proposed, however. For example, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is designing its Griffin lander to deliver up to 500 kilograms to the lunar surface, and it’s also working on a Polaris rover that could fit Resource Prospector’s requirements, CEO John Thornton told GeekWire.

He said Astrobotic’s smaller-scale Peregrine lander and the NASA-supported CubeRover should be ready to fly by mid-2020, and the Griffin and Polaris could be ready by 2022. “The capability’s certainly there,” Thornton said.

Other companies, including Florida-based Moon Express, have their own plans for progressively larger landers. Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has proposed building a Blue Moon lander that could deliver 5,000 kilograms of cargo to the lunar surface. Last year, Blue Origin said Blue Moon could be ready by 2020 if it could join forces with NASA in a public-private partnership.

Thornton emphasized that it was up to NASA to decide how to proceed with lunar in-situ resource utilization, better-known as ISRU. “We are super-supportive of NASA’s interest in ISRU,” he said. “We leave it up to NASA to figure out how best to pursue their objectives.”

NASA isn’t the only space agency interested in ISRU. Just this week, a German company called PTScientists announced that it’s one of the companies participating in the European Space Agency’s Lunar ISRU Demonstration Mission Definition Study. Like NASA, ESA is planning a lunar mission to test ISRU techniques by the mid-2020s, with a heavy reliance on private-sector capabilities.

Hat tip to SpaceRef for providing the text of the LEAG letter to Bridenstine.

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