NASA Cancels Lunar Resource Prospector, Promises Aggressive Commercial Strategy

The Resource Prospector prototype searches for a buried sample tube at the Johnson Space Center rock yard in August 2015. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a move that left the lunar science community stunned, NASA has canceled the Resource Prospector mission, which would have sent a rover to the moon to drill holes in search of ice and other volatiles that could be used to support human settlers and miners and turned into fuel to power spacecraft.

In place of the mission, which was set to launch in 2022, the space agency issued a draft request for proposal (RFP) on Friday for the new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Under CLPS, NASA would pay companies to carry instruments and experiments to the lunar surface aboard privately-built landers and rovers.

The space agency posted the following update on the Resource Prospector mission page on Friday.

NASA is developing an exploration strategy to meet the agency’s expanded lunar exploration goals. Consistent with this strategy, NASA is planning a series of progressive robotic missions to the lunar surface. In addition, NASA has released a request for information on approaches to evolve progressively larger landers leading to an eventual human lander capability.

As part of this expanded campaign, selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the Moon. This exploration campaign reinforces Space Policy Directive 1, which calls for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, including returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration.

The cancellation drew an immediate protest from the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), which provides the space agency with analysis of scientific, technical, commercial, and operational issues related to lunar exploration.

In an April 26 letter to newly installed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine written before the space agency posted the CLPS RFP, LEAG Chairman Samuel J. Lawrence and Emeritus Chairman Clive R. Neal expressed dismay over the cancellation and asked for the mission to be reinstated.

“This action is viewed with both incredulity and dismay by our community, especially as the President’s Space Policy Directive 1 directs NASA to go to the lunar surface,” they wrote. “[Resource Prospector] was the only polar lander-rover mission under development by NASA (in fact, by any nation, as all of the international missions to the lunar poles are static landers) and would have been ready for preliminary design review at the beginning of 2019.”

Documents on the CLPS RFP page indicate that NASA will sign “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) type” contracts with private companies providing transportation services to the moon. The approach will allow the space agency to pick and choose among different missions on which it could fly instruments and experiments.

“The Contractor shall select launch opportunities, determine the overall Mission Architecture, and provide the end-to-end service including operations associated with the Launch Vehicle, Launch Site, Spacecraft, Lander, Mission Design and Analysis, Ground Systems, and Payload Support,” the documents state.

Companies will be paid based on milestones they achieve. The space agency says it plans to issue at least one contract worth a minimum of $25,000.

“The maximum quantity ordered under all contracts awarded for Commercial Lunar Payload Services Acquisition shall not exceed $2.6 billion, cumulatively,” the documents state.

Credit: NASA

NASA has been working on lunar missions with three companies — Astrobotic Technology, Masten Space Systems and Moon Express. The purpose of the program “is to encourage the development of robotic lunar landers that can be integrated with U.S. commercial launch capabilities to deliver payloads to the lunar surface.

“Lunar CATALYST represents another step in the agency’s effort to spur growth in the commercial space sector,” the space agency said. “Commercial lunar transportation capabilities could support sample returns, geophysical network deployment, resource prospecting, and technology demonstrations. They also could address emerging private sector demand to conduct activities on the Moon.”

The Resource Prospector mission was being developed in cooperation with Taiwan, which would have providing the lunar lander.

Resource Prospector prototype. (Credit: NASA)

The rover would have use a neutron spectrometer and a near-infrared spectrometer to look for hydrogen-rich materials. The vehicle then would have used a drill to obtain samples to a depth of 1 meters (3.1 feet).

The soil samples would have been heated to 150 to 450 C ( F) in the rover’s oven to determine how much water and other volatiles exist in it. Volatiles would include water, carbon dioxide, helium, hydrogen, methane, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide.

During 2015 and 2016, NASA engineers completed an integrated test of an engineering rover unit. The vehicle was driven remotely in conditions that simulated those it would encounter on the moon, including night driving to explore how the rover would navigate in low light levels.

Engineers also conducted thermal vacuum and vibration tests on the rover and its payload subsystems. A “detailed digital elevation models of potential landing zones” was also completed.