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ispace lander
An artist’s conception shows ispace’s lander descending to the lunar surface. (ispace Illustration)

NASA is following up on its plan to purchase rides on commercial lunar landers by soliciting ideas for the scientific and technological payloads to put on them.

Those payloads could be flying to the moon as early as next year, NASA said today in its announcement of a program known as Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payloads. Somewhere between $24 million and $36 million would be available for the first round of payloads, with eight to 12 payloads expected to be selected.

“We are looking for ways to not only conduct lunar science but to also use the moon as a science platform to look back at the Earth, observe the sun, or view the vast universe,” said Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Early science objectives could include monitoring heat flow within the moon’s interior, characterizing the solar wind and the vanishingly thin lunar atmosphere, and detecting and analyzing dust.

Technological payloads would take the form of instruments or systems that would facilitate future crewed and robotic missions to explore the moon and Mars, Clarke said.

“The strategy is that these early missions will help us prepare for more complex future missions such as searching for usable resources, building up a seismic network to understand the moon’s internal structure, and studying the lunar mineralogy and chemistry to understand the moon’s origins,” Clarke said. “NASA is also looking forward to supporting U.S. industry efforts to provide more commercial exploration services for multiple customers, including NASA.”

First-round payloads should be ready for delivery and integration into lunar landers no later than 2021, NASA said. In most cases, the payloads would remain under the control of their principal investigators until they are selected for a specific flight.

The deadline for submitting the first round of proposals is Nov. 19. Future calls for proposals are expected to follow at regular intervals. NASA said the next call should come in about a year.

NASA’s roadmap for lunar missions calls for the selection of an initial set of providers for commercial lunar payload services by the end of this year. The first phase of the program, running through 2021, would focus on small landers capable of delivering at least 10 kilograms (22 pounds) to the lunar surface.

Follow-up phases would extend the payload-carrying capability to 500 to 1,000 kilograms (1,100 to 2,200 pounds) for medium-size landers, and 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) or more for large-size landers. The lander that’s being designed by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, known as Blue Moon, would be in the large-size category.

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