NASA has picked the 12 scientific payloads that will be sent to the Moon in preparation for the expected return of humans to the surface of our natural satellite. It has the ambitious goal of sending a crew to the Moon by 2024, a plan that has been described as bold, risky, and unrealistic.
NASA appreciates the importance of understanding and characterizing the Moon before we return. The plan is to go back in 2024 and then create a permanent scientific base by 2028, so we need to know the exact challenges that both humans and materials will face.
The 12 scientific and technical payloads will be sent with three landers, each developed by an upstart company. Five of the payloads will test tech that might be implemented in future lunar missions. The remaining seven will provide a new scientific understanding of the Moon, it’s surface, and the space environment between Earth and our satellite.
“These landers are just the beginning of exciting commercial partnerships that will bring us closer to solving the many scientific mysteries of our Moon, our Solar System, and beyond,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. “What we learn will not only change our view of the universe, but also prepare our human missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.”
Among the tech payloads is a new camera system called Heimdall and the Lunar Demonstration of a Reconfigurable, Radiation Tolerant Computer System (no catchy name or backronym for it yet). There’s also a payload that will investigate how the lunar soil, the regolith, sticks to surfaces (the Regolith Adherence Characterization Payload), and two, PlanetVac and SAMPLR, that will demonstrate ways to collect this regolith.
The scientific missions are focused on understanding the Moon in more detail, aiming to take measurements of the satellite's heat flow, mantle, and magnetic and electric fields. One experiment, the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment (LuSEE), is being built at Berkeley from spare parts and scrap from other probes and missions, to adhere to very tight time and monetary constraints.
“NASA wanted instruments that are ready to go, because the schedule is really aggressive. We are talking about pulling something together and delivering it in about 18 months, which is fast,” principal investigator Stuart Bale explained. “We proposed a re-flight of our Parker Solar Probe instrumentation, which works like a charm, and the team is still together to get it tuned up. We’re good at building experiments quickly and that work.”
One of the landers will also carry MoonRanger, a small, quick autonomous rover, which can explore beyond the lander communication range and autonomously return to it. The new lunar race seems to be off at a breakneck speed.