But CLPS got off to a slower start than expected. When NASA announced the program in 2018, it was optimistic that the first lunar payloads could fly the following year. However, many companies have struggled to develop the promised hardware; Some have stopped working. “I was disappointed that it couldn’t be faster,” Zurbuchen says.
But the companies themselves still believe in it. The first missions in the CLPS program are Astrobotic in Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines in Houston. The Astrobotic spacecraft that carried the tiny Mexican robots waits for a hatch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket in Centennial, Colorado. Vulcan was supposed to go live in May 2023, but problems arose during tests in March. ULA has not yet announced a new release date. The Intuitive Machines’ lunar lander will launch on a SpaceX rocket from Hawthorne, Calif. – expected in June.
Both missiles carry scientific experiments and non-scientific payloads. The Astrobotic mission is equipped with, among other things, several spectrometers built by NASA to study the chemical composition of the lunar surface. Future CLPS flights will carry drills to the moon to explore Earth’s interior and a rover to map ice deposits near the moon’s south pole.
“Every moon landing is a new opportunity for science,” says Mahesh Anand, a planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. “We have to keep our eyes and ears wide open,” he says.
However, some scientists weren’t particularly happy that NASA, not themselves, chose the landing sites for the CLPS flights. NASA responded. In the future, researchers will be able to have a say in the locations on the lunar surface where spaceships should land. Accordingly, NASA changed the landing site for the first Astrobotic flight from an easily accessible location chosen for safety reasons to an ancient lava flow near the intriguing geological uplift called Gruithuisen. And the landing site for Intuitive Machines’ first mission has been moved near the south pole of the Moon, where NASA plans to send manned missions in the future.
Things are getting international on the moon
Being able to build custom infrastructure at select locations on the moon will enable more science, says Kerry Donaldson Hanna, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. It is leading a second CLPS mission to the Gruithuisen Hills, where the rover will further analyze the chemistry of rocks and soils there. “With these specially designed sets of tools, we can tackle very specific questions,” she says.
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