Intuitive Machines to send a lunar lander in preparation for NASA’s Artemis Program

Photo: Official SpaceX Photos | | Public Domain

Intuitive Machines will be sending its robotic Nova-C lander on the lunar surface in 2021 as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

The Houston-based company announced on October 2, along with SpaceX, which will be offering services of its Falcon 9 rocket for the launch and deployment of the lander to its destination.

“We’re honored that Intuitive Machines selected Falcon 9, SpaceX’s tried-and-true workhorse, for this pioneering mission to the moon,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “Our partnership with Intuitive Machines is a great example of two private companies working together with NASA to advance space exploration.”

In May of this year, NASA’s CLPS program granted contracts to Intuitive Machines and two other companies, Orbit Beyond and Astrobotic, for the construction and development of lunar landers to take agency payloads to the moon’s surface. Intuitive Machines got $77 million, Astrobotic received $79.5 million, and Orbit Beyond received $97 million.

NASA initially made the deals with the three companies with the prospect of developing cost-effective ways to conduct research and gather data regarding the most suitable method for man to sustainably land and lift off from the lunar surface.

From a broader perspective, the deals are part of NASA’s ambitious plans of returning man and sending the first woman to the moon in 2024 through the Artemis program. All in all, the Artemis program hopes that it will set the foundation for man to create a sustainable presence on the lunar surface by 2028.

According to Intuitive Machines, Nova-C can carry at least 220 lbs. (100 kilograms) of cargo to any spot on the lunar surface. On the upcoming mission, which is targeted for liftoff on July 2021, the lander will tote five NASA CLPS payloads and will send data home for 13.5 Earth days or roughly one lunar day.

The company will add some payloads from other customers to fill out the Nova-C’s cargo manifest, Intuitive Machines representatives said.

Astrobotic plans to launch its Peregrine lander at about the same time that Nova-C takes flight for the first time. But Peregrine will fly on a different rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, which is still in development. The 2021 Peregrine mission will be the first for both the lander and its launch vehicle.

New Jersey-based Orbit Beyond had been planning to launch its Z-01 lander in September 2020. But in July, NASA announced that the company had backed out of its CLPS deal because it would not be able to meet the ambitious timeline.

Other than the CLPS deal, Intuitive Machines was also granted another $1.3 million contract by NASA under its so-called “Tipping Point” projects.

Specifically, it will be under the Rover Mobility portion of the project and Intuitive Machines will develop technologies for NASA’ advanced avionics where the will handle the development of another spacecraft that is a vision processing computer and software, which the space agency hopes will be able to find solutions to reduce the cost and schedule required for deploying optical, or laser, navigation capabilities on government and commercial missions.

The “Tipping Point” contracts are from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) that support work for up to three years on technologies ranging from propellant production to avionics. STMD develops transformative space technologies to enable future missions that can help the space agency’s long-term exploration plans.

On the lunar lander side, NASA also recently made its final call for proposals to commercial companies for the development and construction of the technology that will actually be used to land man on the moon by 2024. This final version, unlike others, allows companies to skip past the lunar Gateway and go straight to the moon.

NASA says that it has taken into consideration the comments and concerns raised by participating companies from the first two drafts that were initially sent. The space agency noted that these changes would allow flexibility and practicality of completion in time for the 2024 deadline.

Now, that Intuitive Machines has a lunar lander set for initial deployment on the lunar surface, they may also submit a proposal for the latest call by NASA. However, their current model only supports technological payloads and not meant for human use.

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