NASA has announced the selection of three American firms to send instruments and other scientific equipment to the Moon in anticipation of a crewed lunar mission in the future. According to a press release, the U.S. space agency has chosen Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, Texas-based Intuitive Machines, and a group called Orbit Beyond to deliver science and research cargo to the moon. The companies are scheduled to complete their first missions within the next couple of years.
The partnerships are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS program. The program, which will issue up to $2.6 billion worth of contracts, was announced last year. These three companies are the first recipients of contracts under the program. Astrobotic received a contract for $79.5 million, Intuitive was awarded a $77 million contract, and Orbit Beyond will reportedly receive $97 million.
Each of the companies has developed its own lunar landers that are scheduled to land on different areas of the moon. Intuitive Machines is scheduled to land in Oceanous Procellarum, a dark spot on the Moon visible from Earth, by July 2021. Orbit Beyond will attempt to land in Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in a lunar crater, by September 2020. Astrobotic’s chosen landing site is Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon, with a target landing date of July 2021.
NASA expects to deliver up to 23 small payloads of equipment to the Moon’s surface with the landers. Those payloads will include devices that will help map and navigate the lunar surface and measure radiation levels. The cargo will also include equipment to conduct scientific investigations and assess the impact of human activity on the moon.
The cargo drops will be needed for the first American crewed deep-space mission in nearly half a century. Through its Artemis program, NASA hopes to return humans to the Moon by 2024. It would be the first time NASA makes the attempt since the Apollo program ended in 1972.