NASA is going to land on the moon again, maybe as soon as next year.
The agency won’t be sending people, though. It’ll be at least five more years before astronauts walk on the moon again.
But on Friday, NASA is to announce the first contracts to send small experiments and technology packages there aboard robotic spacecraft.
Although not as exciting as a human mission, these landers would be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since the astronauts of Apollo 17 left in 1972.
What will NASA announce?
In November, NASA announced that it had selected nine companies to compete for up to $2.6 billion over the next decade for taking payloads to the moon, part of a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services. These could be small experiments like retroreflectors — essentially, fancy mirrors that reflect light in the direction it came from — which would enable precise measurements of the moon’s gravity.
You can watch the announcement on NASA TV:
How does it tie in to the goal of sending astronauts to the moon in 2024?
These spacecraft would be small — far too small for astronauts, or even to carry supplies to the surface. (They will probably be similar in size to Beresheet, the moon lander built by an Israeli nonprofit that attempted to land earlier this year but crashed.)
However, these spacecraft could survey potential landing sites for human missions. The next astronaut missions are to land near the lunar South Pole, where there is ice frozen in the eternal shadows of some craters.
The ice would not only be a source of water, but could also be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen. Both could provide propellant for rocket engines, and the oxygen would also provide air for astronauts to breathe.
No one knows how hard it will be to extract useful material from the ice; it could be mixed up with dirt and rocks.
The missions could also deliver prototypes of future telescopes and other scientific instruments.
The companies, a mix of established NASA contractors and space start-ups, were:
Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh;
Deep Space Systems of Littleton, Colo.;
Draper of Cambridge, Mass.;
Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Tex.;
Intuitive Machines of Houston;
Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo.;
Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif.;
Moon Express of Cape Canaveral, Fla.;
Orbit Beyond of Edison, N.J.
Is there really money to be made on the moon?
Unlike past moon programs, which have been designed and operated by NASA, the space agency wants to take a low-cost, high-risk approach.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator at NASA’s science directorate, uses a hockey analogy: NASA wants to take many shots at the goal, not expecting all of them to score.
Some, maybe most, of these companies will likely fail. But the hope is that the effort kick-starts a new industry, essentially a FedEx or U.P.S. to the moon, much as SpaceX got in the business of carrying supplies to the International Space Station at lower cost and was able to use the same rocket for commercial satellite launches.
Eventually, the companies that succeed could offer services not only to NASA but to companies also wanting to set up shop on the moon.
What is unknown is how skilled these companies are and how good a goalie the moon is at blocking spacecraft.