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NASA picks Masten Space Systems to deliver science to the moon’s south pole

Alan Boyle
An artist’s conception shows Masten Space Systems’ XL-1 lander on the moon. (Masten Space Systems Illustration)

NASA has selected California-based Masten Space Systems to deliver eight science payloads to the moon’s south pole in 2022 on its XL-1 lunar lander.

Seattle-based Olis Robotics has a role in getting one of those payloads, a robotic arm, ready to fly.

The $75.9 million contract was awarded to Masten under the terms of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, or CLPS — which provides opportunities for the space agency to order lunar delivery services from commercial providers, in a way that’s similar to ordering a rideshare trip on earthly streets. In 2018, Masten was one of the first delivery providers that NASA put on its CLPS list.

Masten hasn’t yet flown anything in space, but it’s been working on its lander technology for more than a decade in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory, among others. Back in 2009, Masten won more than a million dollars in the NASA-funded Lunar Lander Challenge.

“Masten is thrilled to have NASA as our anchor customer on this mission,” Masten Space Systems CEO Sean Mahoney said in a news release. “As we, like the rest of the world, work to keep our employees and families safe in these trying times, we’re glad to see America’s return to the moon and space commerce moving forward.”

More customers are being sought to add hundreds of pounds’ worth of payloads to the manifest for the mission in late 2022.

CLPS payloads are meant to blaze a trail for crewed missions to the moon by as early as 2024, under the umbrella of NASA’s Artemis program.

“Under our Artemis program, we are going to the moon with all of America,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today in a news release. “Commercial industry is critical to making our vision for lunar exploration a reality. The science and technology we are sending to the lunar surface ahead of our crewed missions will help us understand the lunar environment better than we ever have before.”

The CLPS award calls for Masten to provide end-to-end service for delivery of NASA’s scientific instruments, including payload integration, launch from Earth, landing on the lunar surface and at least 12 days of operation. Masten hasn’t yet said which launch provider it will select for the mission, but the likeliest candidates are SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin.

One of the payloads covered by the contract is a robotic arm known as SAMPLR (which stands for Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering and Probing of Lunar Regolith). The arm, provided by Maxar Technologies, is a flight spare from the Mars Exploration Rover project. It’s being modified to collect samples of lunar soil and demonstrate the use of a scoop to filter and isolate particles of different sizes.

Last year, Maxar selected Olis Robotics, formerly known as BluHaptics, to provide the software that will train operators on Earth to control the arm during the mission.

The other payloads include:

  • Lunar Compact Infrared Imaging System (L-CIRiS), which will deploy a radiometer – a device that measures infrared wavelengths of light – to explore the moon’s surface composition, map its surface temperature distribution, and demonstrate the instrument’s feasibility for future lunar resource utilization activities.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS), a sensor that will measure the radiation environment on the moon’s surface. Another LETS payload is being flown on Astrobotic’s CLPS flight to the moon in 2021. Astrobotic plans to use its Peregrine lander and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket to make the 2021 delivery.
  • Heimdall, a flexible camera system for conducting lunar science on commercial vehicles. Heimdall makes use of a single digital video recorder and four cameras: a wide-angle descent imager, a narrow-angle regolith imager, and two wide-angle panoramic imagers..
  • MoonRanger, a rover that weighs less than 30 pounds and will demonstrate communications and long-distance mapping technologies. MoonRanger will carry the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS), which will measure the concentration of hydrogen in the moon’s regolith – a possible indication of the existence of buried water. NSS will also fly on Astrobotic’s mission.
  • Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo), a device to measure potentially accessible resources on the moon’s surface. A different MSolo instrument will fly on Astrobotic’s mission.
  • Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), a tool to measure surface composition and temperature. The instrument will characterize the variability of the lunar soils and detect volatiles such as methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and water. Astrobotic’s lander will also carry a NIRVSS instrument.
  • Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), a series of eight small mirrors to measure distance and support landing accuracy. It requires no power or communications from the lander and can be detected by future spacecraft orbiting or landing on the moon. Such arrays have been included on moon missions since Apollo 11 in 1969. They’ll be included on Astrobotic’s mission as well as on Intuitive Machines’ CLPS mission, which will use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send a Nova-C lander to the moon in 2021.

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