An illustration depicts a small lunar rover, or CubeRover, as built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic next to its lander on the moon. Image courtesy of Astrobotic
ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 18 (UPI) -- While the public has grown used to seeing rovers on Mars, NASA plans for 2022 to be the year of a U.S. return to the surface of the moon by two robotic landers and tiny rovers.
Not since 1972 has any U.S. spacecraft landed on the moon. But two NASA-funded contractors, Houston-based Intuitive Machines and Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, hope to be part of the first new lunar surface mission.
"The first priority is, I hope it's successful -- that is the number one priority above all else," Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said in an interview with UPI.
"We have a good shot at being first, but that's not the driver, that's not the big deal -- success is most important," Thornton said.
A small rover the size of a shoebox, named Iris, already is attached to Astrobotic's Peregrine lander for possible delivery to the moon in the first half of this year, Thornton said.
"The same miniaturization that packs more power into your phone every year is ... it's the same miniaturization of technology that will be used to drive across the surface of the moon," he said.
Astrobotic's name for the vehicles, CubeRover, was inspired by so-called cube satellites -- which now come in shoebox size -- that perform experiments and communications tasks in low-Earth orbit, he said.
Students at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh built Iris under a program founded by professor and roboticist Red Whittaker -- who led Carnegie-Mellon to victory in a government contest to produce self-driving cars in 2007. He's now chairman of Astrobotic.
Thornton said he believes Astrobotic will be the first U.S. mission to the moon's surface since the 1972 Apollo landing, but he couldn't guarantee that. That's because Intuitive Machines has reported it is nearing readiness for a launch.
Intuitive said Wednesday it had completed tests of its tracking network to ensure it could communicate properly with its Nova-C lunar lander that will also carry a small rover for London-based Spacebit Technologies.
"This was a critical step towards returning the United States to the lunar surface on our IM-1 mission this year," Peter McGrath, vice president of business development at Intuitive Machines said in a press release.
The Artemis missions are due to start with an uncrewed test flight around the moon as early as March, followed by crewed missions that could land on the moon by 2025, according to NASA officials.
Intuitive's contract with NASA is for $77 million for its so-called IM-1 mission while Astrobotic's Peregrine lander has a contract for $79.5 million for it's Peregrine Mission 1. The missions are designed to investigate landing sites and resources for NASA's planned Artemis crewed missions.
The two robotic lander missions by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are designed to investigate landing sites and resources for NASA's planned Artemis crewed missions.
Such sums for lunar missions are a bargain for NASA compared to the cost of Apollo missions and other landers leading up to Apollo, Thornton said.
"NASA has awarded seven of these lander missions -- CLPs missions -- for under a billion dollars, but in the past one mission like this could have cost a billion," he said.
Astrobotic plans to launch its first mission on a United Launch Alliance rocket, while Intuitive plans its first launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9. Both missions will carry additional payloads and equipment for NASA and commercial customers.
But America's return to the moon -- even just robotically -- has been frustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Thornton said, particularly due to strained supply chain issues, such as obtaining highly specialized materials and components.
The two missions already are at least a year or two behind schedule.
"There's a ton of parts that have to come together and COVID-19 has really thrown a lot of that for a loop," he said. "You're using high-end stuff that can be very difficult to source in normal times and it gets even more complicated with COVID-19 compounding that."
"We are integrating the propulsion system to the spacecraft and we should have the spacecraft ready in a couple of months," he said. "Then there will be testing and it's going to be off to the launch site."
Thornton said the competition with other companies in NASA's program, including Intuitive Machines, is "cutthroat."
Both companies have built their own mission control centers in their respective headquarters locations.
Astrobotic has eight additional rovers in construction now, some of which are for testing and demonstration purposes, Michael Provenzano, director of planetary mobility, said in an interview. They are tested in the company's lunar regolith simulation lab, he said.
The key to testing the new rovers is understanding how they would be able to roll across the pebbles and dust on the lunar surface in the low lunar gravity, he said.
In the meantime, Astrobotic is helping to advise NASA on future lunar rovers that could pick up large amounts of rocks or ice for use by future missions, Provenzano said.
"In many ways we are recreating the wheel, because we're trying to make sure that it's the right data for our missions, and this just hasn't been done before," he said.
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover, using its Mastcam-Z camera system, captured this view of the Martian sunset on November 9, 2021, the 257th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Martian sunsets typically stand out for their distinctive blue color as fine dust in the atmosphere permits blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than colors with longer wavelengths. But this sunset looks different: Less dust in the atmosphere resulted in a more muted color than average. The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo