SpaceX has signed a contract to launch a second lunar lander for Intuitive Machines as early as 2022. It has already inked a deal to launch Intuitive Machines’ first lunar lander as early as the fourth quarter of 2021.
Intuitive Machines is building a model of lunar landers known as “Nova-C”, which will be capable of carrying up to 100 kg (around 222 lbs) of cargo to the Moon’s surface. The first Nova-C will include an imaging system that will attempt to take the first image of the center of the Milky Way from the Moon. Images taken from the Moon will have the advantage of avoiding the artificial light pollution and atmospheric distortion that can make astrophotography difficult on Earth.
The second Nova-C’s cargo will include an experimental polar resource mining drill and a mass spectrometer to the lunar south pole. These experiments will provide data on the feasibility of harvesting lunar resources that can support long-term crewed operations on the lunar surface or in lunar orbit.
NASA is especially interested in setting up the Lunar Gateway, which will be able to support longer duration crewed missions on the lunar surface than was possible with the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway, the initial plans for the station included support for crewed missions beyond the Moon, although this seems to have taken a back seat to lunar operations for the time being.
NASA already has several international partners lined up to provide hardware for the Lunar Gateway. Most recently, NASA signed a deal with the Canada Space Agency for a robotic arm that will be a next-generation version of the International Space Station’s Canadarm2. The first hardware for the Lunar Gateway could go into lunar orbit as early as 2024.
It is also currently working toward returning crews to the surface of the Moon as early as 2024 with the Artemis Program, although that program is likely to face delays and may be canceled altogether by the incoming Biden Administration.
The two Nova-C landings are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Like the Commercial Crew program, which became an official NASA program in 2011 and most recently launched the Crew-1 mission with four astronauts on board, CLPS encourages the development of privately owned space-related hardware that NASA can purchase as needed to support its missions. The included aerospace companies can also sell their hardware and services to private entities interested in using them for their own projects. The contracts for the development of the hardware include a firm amount of money to be paid when the companies reach clearly defined milestones. This encourages them to work toward keeping costs down, as opposed to the “cost plus” model that is common in the aerospace industry.
CLPS is currently fostering hardware development by a total of 14 companies, which can use them to place bids for NASA contracts for lunar operations. If successful, Intuitive Machines will become one of the first aerospace companies to place its own lander on the surface of the Moon.