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NASA plans to return to the moon with a private lunar-lander robot



earth rise moon apollo 10 nasa
plans to return to the moon with American


  • The last time NASA landed a spacecraft on the moon was in
    December 1972.
  • The US space agency says it’s about to announce “moon
    partnerships” with American companies to return to the lunar
  • NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine claimed the new
    moon missions will occur
    “sooner than you think!”
  • NASA is withholding details of the announcement until
    Thursday, but Business Insider has independently confirmed some

stunning landing
of a car-size robot on Mars didn’t already
whet your appetite for space exploration this week, mark your
calendar for 2 p.m. ET on Thursday.

That’s when NASA plans to give an update about a program that
aims to land privately developed spacecraft on the moon.

“We are announcing new moon partnerships with American
companies,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, tweeted on Tuesday. “The US is
returning to the surface of the moon, and we’re doing it sooner
than you think!”

NASA hasn’t landed anything on the moon
since Apollo 17 in December 1972
, the final mission of the
agency’s crewed lunar exploration program. (The agency has,
however, crashed probes into the moon to study the composition of
its soil.)

The space agency has been working on plans to build a “Lunar
Orbital Platform-Gateway
“: a space station to be built

in the vicinity of the moon
sometime in the 2020s. But
Business Insider has learned that Thursday’s announcement is tied
to a more imminent effort to explore the moon and, by extension,
support NASA’s larger goals with its gateway.

“Working with US companies is the next step to achieving
long-term scientific study and human exploration of the moon and
Mars,” NASA said in a press release.

What NASA might announce on Thursday

astrobotic technology peregrine robotic moon lander spacecraftAstrobotic Technology

NASA has provided few details about its announcement, but said
“future partners” will be named. Each of the 11 small companies
to be named will be eligible to compete for millions of dollars
in NASA contracts.

Business Insider has independently confirmed that a company
called Astrobotic Technology will be one of those partners. 

Space industry sources also told Business Insider that the
announcement will flesh out the future of the agency’s
Commercial Lunar Payload Services program
, or CLPS.

In many ways, CLPS resembles NASA’s Commercial Crew Program,
which uses billions of dollars to coax private companies (like
SpaceX and Boeing) to
develop new spaceships
capable of
ferrying astronauts
to and from orbit. Similarly, CLPS hopes
to encourage smaller companies to develop 1,100- to 2,200-pound
robotic landers that can deliver NASA’s scientific payloads to
the moon’s surface.

CLPS missions may launch and land as early as 2019, according to NASA. NASA may
also use the competition to solicit
much larger landers
designed to take people to and from the
lunar surface in the late 2020s.

Astrobotic formed in 2007 during the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a $20
million competition that aimed to spur private exploration of the
moon. The contest
shuttered in 2018 without a winner
, but Astrobotic continued
developing a small lunar lander called Peregrine.

In March, Astrobotic was
working with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to find
room on a rocket that could fly Peregrine to the moon sometime in
2020. Space News reported in May that
Astrobotic was preparing to bring 12 payloads to the lunar

Then in August, Astrobotic received $10 million from NASA to
create a “low-cost, reliable, high-performance, stand-alone”
system to land a commercial lunar spacecraft on the moon. The
funding was part of $44 million’ worth of awards NASA gave out to
companies developing
“tipping point” technologies
for space exploration.

Who else might be involved?

new glenn rocket launch flight moon earth illustration blue origin
An illustration of Blue
Origin’s reusable New Glenn rocket launching toward

Blue Origin

NASA’s list of people scheduled to participate in the
Thursday announcement

include Bridenstine, Thomas
Zurbuchen (the agency’s associate administrator for science
missions), Stan Love (a NASA astronaut), Andrea Mosie (the
manager of the Apollo sample laboratory), Barbara Cohen (a Lunar
Reconnaissance Orbiter scientist), and students involved in the

First Robotics Competition

If “tipping point” awards are any indication of the other
companies that may be named as “future partners,” that list may
include Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by
billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Blue Origin took home $13 million in NASA cash in the
“tipping point” awards — funding that was earmarked for maturing
“critical technologies that enable precision and soft landing on
the moon.”

In October, Blue Origin said it’s “in the conceptual design
phase” of building a large lunar lander called
“Blue Moon.”
The company is also creating a
reusable rocket system called New Glenn
, which might take
flight in 2020.

Blue Origin did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s
requests for comment, and SpaceX — which could conceivably use
its Falcon Heavy rocket to
send large payloads to the moon
— also did not respond in
time for publication.

Another company that could be named as a new NASA partner is ULA,
which received $13.9 million in the “tipping point” awards. About
$10 million of that sum was intended to help ULA develop systems
that would enable long-duration moon missions.

Frontier Aerospace Corporation also got $1.9 million from NASA to
develop rocket engines to help Astrobotic’s lander.

Watch NASA’s announcement live online

The agency plans to stream its briefing via NASA TV, which anyone
can watch on YouTube.

You can tune in using the player embedded below starting at 2
p.m. EST on Thursday.

If you’re having trouble watching the feed above, try NASA TV on the agency’s website.

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