Featured Image Source: Intuitive Machines
NASA aims to launch the first woman and next man to the moon by the year 2024. Before that, the agency plans to send cargo deliveries that will pave the way towards crewed missions, under a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract. A Houston-based company, Intuitive Machines, is under a $77 million contract to carry scientific equipment to the moon on its robotic lander called NOVA-C. Intuitive Machines announced this week, its lunar mission will take place in October next year. The Nova-C lander will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 11, 2021. According to the company, that specific date was selected "nominally" because it provides a "near-optimal" course to conduct a 6-day voyage to the moon. Also, upon landing, the 2 weeks that follow will provide enough sunlight to conduct vital operations on the lunar surface. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell stated:
"We're honored that Intuitive Machines selected Falcon 9, SpaceX’s tried-and-true workhorse, for this pioneering mission to the moon. Our partnership with Intuitive Machines is a great example of two private companies working together with NASA to advance space exploration."
Image Source: Wikipedia
NOVA-C will land on a dark spot on the moon called Oceanus Procellarum (pictured above). NASA's priority is to build a sustainable human presence on and around the moon's orbit by 2028. Landers, like NOVA-C, will help the agency investigate the terrain and take valuable cargo that will be needed to build a base. President and CEO of Intuitive Machines, Steve Altemus, said in a press release:
“This kind of lunar landing assessment hasn’t been done since the 1972 Apollo mission. The tremendous effort our team has put forth to fully characterize our descent approach, landing site options and lighting conditions to ensure mission success is a paramount task required to fulfill our obligation to our private payload customers and NASA.”
“Our Flight Dynamics team really outdid themselves evaluating trajectories and landing conditions during each launch window,” said Intuitive Machines Vice President of Research and Development, Dr. Tim Crain. “They managed to design this landing site that is supported across our primary and secondary four-day launch windows. No one in Houston has looked as seriously at landing sites for a funded lunar landing mission in almost 50 years.”
The Nova-C lander is capable of carrying at least 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of cargo to any spot on the lunar surface. During the first Artemis cargo mission, the lander will carry five NASA CLPS payloads and beam data to Earth. NOVA-C is equipped to beam data 24/7, at speeds of up to 250 Kbps – 6 Mbps, and can host 200 watts of power.
The five NASA payloads NOVA-C will carry to the moon are:
•Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1): LN-1 is a CubeSat-sized experiment that will demonstrate autonomous navigation to support future surface and orbital operations. It has flown on the space station and is being developed at NASA Marshall.
•Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS): SCALPSS will capture video and still image data of the lander’s plume as the plume starts to impact the lunar surface until after engine shut off, which is critical for future lunar and Mars vehicle designs. It is being developed at NASA Langley, and also leverages camera technology used on the Mars 2020 rover.
•Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES): ROLSES will use a low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height. These measurements will aid future exploration missions by demonstrating if there will be an effect on the antenna response or larger lunar radio observatories with antennas on the lunar surface. Also, the ROLSES measurements will confirm how well a lunar surface-based radio observatory could observe and image solar radio bursts. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.
•Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA): LRA is a collection of eight approximately half-inch (1.25 centimeter) retro-reflectors – a unique kind of mirror that is used for measuring distance -- mounted to the lander. This mirror reflects laser light from other orbiting and landing spacecraft to precisely determine the lander’s position. It is being provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
•Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL): The NDL is a LIDAR-based (LIght Detection And Ranging) sensor composed of a three-beam optical head and a box with electronics and photonics that will provide extremely precise velocity and range sensing during descent and landing of the lander that will tightly control navigation precision for a soft and controlled touchdown on the Moon. NDL is being collaboratively developed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.