Space 2023: Major Test of NASA’s Commercial Moon Program as Armada of Landers Head for Lunar Surface

This image of the Moon was taken by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station during his Horizons mission. (Credit: ESA/NASA)

Part 2 of a Series

In April 2018, NASA announced that it would no longer build robotic moon landers, but that it would pay private companies to deliver instruments to the surface under its new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Companies would supplement relatively meager NASA funding by selling the remaining payload space to other parties. NASA said CLPS would take “shots on goal,” with some failures expected.

Five years later, the program faces a major test with the launch of as many as three CLPs missions in 2023. These spacecraft will be part of a group of seven lunar landers launched this year, including one built by a private Japanese company and three others constructed by the Japanese, Indian and Russian space agencies.

Intuitive Machines is scheduled to launch its IM-1 and IM-2 missions on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets this year. (The second mission could slip into 2024.) Astrobotic Technology is set to launch its Peregrine lander aboard an United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur booster.

ispace’s privately-funded Hakuto-R lander is scheduled to land on the moon in late April. A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched the Japanese company’s mission on Dec. 11.

Japan will be attempting its first landing on the moon this year. India hopes its second mission succeeds where its first failed in 2019. And Russia is sending its first spacecraft to the lunar surface since 1976 when it was part of the Soviet Union.

With the caveat that launch schedules are notoriously unreliable, let’s take a look at the seven moon landings scheduled for this year.

CLPS-Supported Missions

Nova-C lander on the lunar surface. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

IM-1 Lunar Lander
Company: Intuitive Machines
Destination: between Mare Serenitatis and Mare Crisium
Launch Date: March 2023
Launch Vehicle: SpaceX Falcon 9

Intuitive Machines Nova-C lander is set to deliver the following payloads to the lunar surface:

  • Laser Retro-Reflector Array, NASA: Eight half-inch retro-reflectors that will allow orbital spacecraft to determine the lander’s precise location on the surface using laser light.
  • Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL), NASA: NDL will provide extremely precise velocity and ranging data during the lander’s descent and landing.
  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1), NASA: A CubeSat-sized S-band beacon that will demonstrate autonomous spacecraft positioning through navigation measurements.
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS), NASA: SCALPSS will capture video and still images of the impact the lander rocket plume has on the lunar surface.
  • Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES), NASA: A low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height, acquire observations of solar and planetary radio sources from the lunar surface, sense near-surface charged dust, and provide a first-ever measurement of the radio environment between 10 kHz and 30 MHz at the landing site.
  • EagleCAM, Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University: A camera will be ejected from Nova-C during descent to provide images of the vehicle’s landing. EagleCAM will also test an electrostatic dust-removal system.
  • ILO-X, International Lunar Observatory: An imaging suite that will capture some of the first photos of the Milky Way Galaxy Center from the surface of the moon along with making other observations.
  • Lonestar, Lonestar Data Holdings: The first data center placed on the moon.
  • Omni-Heat Infinity, Columbia Sportswear: Reflectivity technology that will protect the lander from extreme lunar temperatures.
  • Lunaprise, Galactic Legacy Labs: Microfische disks with messages called lunagrams that will use words and photos to tell the story of our civilization.
  • Jeff Koons Art Cube: Digital works of Koons’ Moon Phases sculptures.

The Falcon 9 that launches IM-1 will also carry Geometric Energy Corporation’s DOGE-1 satellite as a secondary payload. It is the first spacecraft paid for with the cryptocurrency Dogecoin.

Illustration of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander with a depiction of NASA’s Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) attached to the spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: Intuitive Machines)

IM-2 Lunar Lander
Company: Intuitive Machines
Destination: South pole
Launch Date: Late 2023
Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9

Intuitive Machine’s second lunar mission will deliver NASA’s Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment 1 (PRIME-1) payload to the lunar south pole near Shackleton Crater. PRIME-1 will drill for ice under the lunar surface. Other payloads aboard the lander include:

  • Micro-Nova deployable robot hopper developed by Intuitive Machines.
  • Lunar rover built by Lunar Outpost.
  • Mass Spectrometer observing lunar operations (MSolo) that will measure volatile gases that escape from excavated materials.
  • 4G/LTE communications network developed by Nokia of America Corporation.
A rendering of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander is shown, with NASA’s three water-detecting payloads (MSolo, NSS, and NIRVSS) highlighted in blue. (Credit: Astrobotic Technology)

Peregrine Lander
Company: Astrobotic Technology
Destination: Lacus Mortis
Launch Date: 2023
Launch Vehicle: Vulcan Centaur

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will deliver a suite of NASA and private payloads to the surface, including:

  • Iris Lunar Rover, Carnegie Mellon University: Iris will explore the surface.
  • Colmena, Mexican Space Agency: five small robots that will be catapulted onto the lunar surface.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer, NASA: Instrument to collect data about the lunar radiation environment.
  • Fluxgate Magnetometer, NASA: Instrument to characterize lunar magnetic fields.
  • Mass Spectrometer observing lunar operations (MSolo), NASA: MSolo will identify low-molecular weight volatiles.
  • Near-infrared Volatile Spectrometer Systems (NIRVSS), NASA: NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide, methane and temperatures.
  • Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS), NASA: NIMLS will measure neutron radiation at the surface.
  • Neutron Spectrometer Systems (NSS), NASA: NSS will search for indications of water-ice near the lunar surface.
  • Photovoltaic Investigation on the Lunar Surface (PILS), NASA: PILS will test of advanced solar arrays on the lunar surface.
  • Peregrine Ion-trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) for Lunar Surface Volatiles, NASA: PITMS will characterize the lunar exosphere to understand the release and movement of volatiles.
  • Navigation Doppler LIDAR, NASA: NDL will determine Peregrine’s exact velocity and position to ensure a safe landing.
  • Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL), NASA: SEAL will investigate the chemical response of lunar regolith to the thermal, physical and chemical disturbances generated during a landing.
  • Laser Rectro-reflector Array (LRA), NASA: LRA will reflect laser light from Earth to determine the exact location of the lander on the surface.
  • Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN), Astrobotic Technology: A navigation sensor designed to allow for accurate landings on the moon.
  • M-42 Radiation Detector, German Aerospace Center: Instrument will measure radiation on the flight to the moon and on the surface.
  • The Arch Libraries, Arch Mission Foundation: Libraries of electronically archived materials.
  • Memorial Spaceflight, Celestis: Human ashes delivered to the moon.
  • Memorial Space Flight Services, Elysium Space: Human ashes delivered to the moon.
  • Moonark, Carnegie Mellon University: A set of intricately designed objects intended to spark wonderment and discovery by future generations.
  • Mementos to the Moon, DHL: A Moonbox containing small personal mementos.
  • Spacebit Plaque, Spacebit: Artwork created by Sacha Jafri.
  • Footsteps on the Moon, Lunar Mission One: Digital submissions from around the world.
  • Lunar Bitcoin, Bitmex Seychelles: A physical coin loaded with 1 bitcoin.
  • Memory of Mankind on the Moon, Puli Space Technologies: A plaque containing archival imagery and texts readable with a 10x magnifier.
  • Lunar Dream Capsule, Astroscale: A capsule with children’s messages from around the world.

Private Lunar Mission

Hakuto-R lander on the moon. (Credit: ispace)

HAKUTO-R Lunar Lander
Company: ispace
Destination: Mare Frigoris
Launched: Dec. 11, 2022
Landing: April 2023
Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9

ispace’s Hakuto-R lander is carrying 30 kg (66 lb) of commercial and government payloads, including:

  • United Arab Emirates’ Rashid lunar rover
  • Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) SORA-Q transformable lunar robot
  • NGK Spark Plug Company’s solid-state battery test module
  • Mission Control Space Services Inc.’s artificial intelligence (AI) flight computer
  • multiple 360-degree cameras from Canadensys Aerospace
  • music disc with the song “SORATO” performed by Japanese rock band Sakanaction, an original supporter of Team HAKUTO during Google Lunar XPRIZE
  • panel engraved with the names of Team HAKUTO crowdfunding supporters during Google Lunar XPRIZE.

ispace is a commercial spinoff from Team HAKUTO, which competed in the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize competition for the first private company to land a rover on the moon. The prize ended in 2018 without a winner.

Government Lunar Missions

Luna 25 lander. (Credit: By Pline – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68640951)

Luna 25
Agency: Roscosmos
Destination: Boguslawsky crater
Launch Date: July 23, 2023
Launch Vehicle: Soyuz-2.1b

Luna 25 is designed to test landing technology and provide data about the lunar surface. Payloads on the mission include:

  • ADRON-LR for active neutron and gamma-ray analysis of regolith
  • ARIES-L for the measurement of plasma in the exosphere
  • LASMA-LR laser mass spectrometer
  • LIS-TV-RPM for infrared spectrometry of minerals
  • PmL for the measurement of dust and micro-meteorites
  • THERMO-L for the measurement of the thermal properties of regolith
  • STS-L camera panoramic and local imaging
  • Laser retro-reflector for ranging experiments
  • BUNI for power and science data support.

The last time Russians landed on the moon was 47 years ago. The Soviet Union’s Luna 24 lander touched down at Mare Crisium on Aug. 18, 1976. It returned a soil sample to Earth four days later.

SLIM lunar lander (Credit: JAXA)

Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM)
Agency: JAXA
Destination: Marius Hills
Launch Date: 2023
Launch Vehicle: H-IIA

SLIM is designed to demonstrate precise landing technology by touching down within 100 meters (328 ft) of its target. The goal is to land near the Marius Hills Hole, a lunar lava tube entrance discovered by the Japanese Kaguya orbiter.

Chandrayaan2 Vikram lander (Credit: ISRO)

Chandrayaan-3 Lander
Agency: ISRO
Destination: June 2023
Launch Date: South pole
Launch Vehicle: LVM-3

Chandrayaan-3 is a partial repeat of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, whose Vikram lander crashed into the surface due to a software glitch on Sept. 6, 2019. (Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter was successful.) The new mission includes a lander, a small rover and a propulsion module that will remain in orbit as a communications relay.