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Lunar lander
An artist’s conception shows a lunar lander with scientific payloads. (NASA Illustration)

Update for 6 p.m. PT July 31: One of the commercial ventures selected to deliver science experiments to the moon’s surface, New Jersey-based Orbit Beyond, is bowing out of the first round of deliveries.

NASA said Orbit Beyond ran into “internal corporate challenges” that ruled out being able to launch a lander in 2020 as planned. The company asked to be released from its task order agreement under the terms of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. NASA said it complied with the request.

Other reports suggested that Orbit Beyond’s difficulties had to do with using technology developed by TeamIndus, the company’s India-based partner. “The optics, obviously, are not good,” Space News quoted Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, as saying last month during a congressional hearing.

In this week’s update, NASA said “Orbit Beyond remains a CLPS contract awardee and may be eligible to compete for future CLPS opportunities.”

Original story from May 31: NASA has chosen three commercial ventures that haven’t yet launched anything into space to deliver science experiments to the moon’s surface, starting next year.

Today’s awards are the first to be announced under the terms of the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS, which draws from a “catalog” of flight opportunities offered by nine commercial teams.

Each team proposed flying specific payloads to the moon, and this summer NASA will determine which experiments will be delivered by which teams. The potential payloads focus on subjects ranging from basic lunar science to precision navigation and solar power generation.

The first three teams to win contracts are:

  • Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company that has been awarded $79.5 million. Astrobotic proposes flying as many as 14 payloads for NASA to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the moon, by July 2021. Astrobotic’s partners include DHL, Airbus DS, Dynetics and United Launch Alliance.
  • Intuitive Machines of Houston, which has won $77 million and is proposing to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a big dark spot on the western edge of the moon’s near side, by July 2021. Intuitive Machines has Boeing as a strategic partner for its lunar lander program.
  • Orbit Beyond, a venture based in Edison, N.J., which has been awarded $97 million and is proposing to fly as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the moon’s craters, by September 2020. Orbit Beyond’s partners include TeamIndus, Advanced Space, Altius, Honeybee Robotics, Ceres Robotics and Apollo Fusion.

“Our selection of these U.S. commercial landing service providers represents America’s return to the moon’s surface for the first time in decades, and it’s a huge step forward for our Artemis lunar exploration plans,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. ”Next year, our initial science and technology research will be on the lunar surface, which will help support sending the first woman and the next man to the moon in five years. Investing in these commercial landing services also is another strong step to build a commercial space economy beyond low Earth orbit.”

All three teams are still in the process of negotiating launch contracts. Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond are looking at SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, while Astrobotic has talked about putting its lander on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

NASA said the other lunar delivery providers in its CLPS category will have more opportunities to win orders as the lunar exploration program proceeds. One of those other commercial teams is headed by Moon Express, a Florida-based venture that has Seattle-area entrepreneur Naveen Jain as its executive chairman. Moon Express’ partners include Sierra Nevada Corp., Paragon Space Development Corp., Odyssey Space Research and NanoRacks.

In addition to the CLPS program, NASA is providing $45.5 million to 11 commercial ventures to produce studies and prototypes for larger lunar landers capable of landing astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. Orbit Beyond happens to be one of those 11 ventures, as is Blue Origin, the company that was founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and is based in Kent, Wash.

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