What is NASA’s CLPS program?
NASA is returning humans to the Moon later in the decade, but a fleet of agency-supported robotic spacecraft will touch down on lunar soil starting this year.
With its $2.6 billion Commercial Lunar Payloads Services (CLPS) initiative, NASA has been competitively funding commercial companies to build spacecraft that autonomously land on the Moon, and carry with them the agency’s science and technology payloads to geologically diverse places.
Upcoming CLPS Moon landings
To date, NASA has funded four commercial companies for a total of seven CLPS Moon landing missions between 2022 and 2024 as follows:
Mission 1, Late 2022: $77 million contract to Intuitive Machines
Mission 2, Q4 2022: $79.5 million contract to Astrobotic
Mission 3, 2023: $47 million contract to Intuitive Machines
Mission 4, 2024: $93.3 million contract to Firefly
Mission 5, November 2023: $75.9 million contract to Masten Space
Mission 6, Late 2023: $226.5 million contract to Astrobotic
Mission 7, 2024: $77.5 million contract to Intuitive Machines
Unlike traditional missions, these CLPS missions will be fully built, operated and managed by their companies, with minimal oversight from NASA. The agency only dictates preferences for the landing sites, and the instruments it wants onboard.
These missions will also have non-NASA payloads from across the globe — something the agency encourages to spur a commercial lunar ecosystem. All landers on these missions will last a maximum of one lunar day — that is, 14 Earth days — since frigid nighttime temperatures, well below -100 degrees Celsius (-148 degrees Fahrenheit), will render the solar- and battery-powered landers non-functional.
Intuitive Machines’ first CLPS mission
For its first CLPS mission in late 2022, Intuitive Machines will carry six NASA payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a dark lava plain on the Moon. Most notably, the lander will have stereo cameras to record how its engine plumes impact the surface. This will help us quantify how rocket plumes interact with and kick off Moondust so that we can protect future surface spacecraft and habitats.
Astrobotic’s first CLPS mission
In Q4 2022, Astrobotic’s lander will also touchdown in a lunar lava plain, Lacus Mortis, carrying 28 payloads from eight countries. These include 11 NASA instruments, chief of which are three spectrometers to track the movements of water on the Moon’s surface. The mass spectrometer will also measure water and other volatiles released by the solar wind impinging the lunar soil. Such data will help scientists understand how water gets transported around the Moon, particularly from the equator to permanently shadowed regions on the poles, where it can remain preserved for billions of years.
Intuitive Machines’ second CLPS mission
On its second Moon mission in 2023, Intuitive Machines will deliver NASA’s PRIME-1 drill and a mass spectrometer to the Moon’s south pole. The lander will drill up to 1 meter below the surface and analyze the soil for water ice, a first such study. The lander will also deploy a rover on the surface to test Nokia’s 4G/LTE network on the Moon, another first. Further, there’s the company’s own NASA-supported hopper onboard called Micro-Nova, which will jump around the Moon with a camera to take high-resolution images of the surface under its flight path.
Masten’s first CLPS mission
Masten Space’s lander will touchdown on the Moon’s south pole in November 2023. It will have at least eight instruments onboard, chiefly to detect water ice and other volatiles such as methane and carbon dioxide to help us understand the Moon’s resource potential. The lander will also deploy Astrobotic’s shoebox-sized autonomous rover called MoonRanger. NASA is making use of its capabilities by putting a neutron spectrometer onboard to detect signs of water ice below the surface.
VIPER rover delivery by Astrobotic
Astrobotic will deliver NASA’s VIPER rover on the Moon’s south pole in late 2023. The rover will explore areas in and around permanently shadowed regions for over 100 days, and use its drill and three instruments to unravel the nature of the Moon’s water ice deposits, assess their resource potential, and determine how accessible they are. This will help us plan future human missions to the Moon’s poles and eventually build sustainable habitats.
Firefly’s first CLPS mission
Firefly’s first Moon lander will descend in the lava plains of Mare Crisium in 2024, carrying several NASA instruments to study the lunar environment. One of the lander’s legs will feature PlanetVac, a low-cost soil sampling technology partially funded by The Planetary Society to enable future sample return missions from the Moon, Mars and other planetary bodies. This mission will also be NASA’s first attempt to get a GPS lock from the Moon.
Intuitive Machines’ third CLPS mission
Intuitive Machines’ third Moon landing will be in the swirl of Reiner Gamma in 2024. Reiner Gamma has a weak local magnetic field, possibly a remnant from the time the Moon had a global magnetic field. The mission’s primary payload suite Lunar Vertex is a collection of spectrometers and magnetometers on the lander and a rover to study the swirl’s composition, and map the strength and direction of magnetic fields on the surface. This will help us better understand the effects of solar wind and bombarding micrometeorites on planetary bodies across the solar system, and shape our understanding of the Moon’s magnetic evolution. The lander will also deploy four small CADRE rovers from NASA, which will autonomously navigate the landed region and collectively better map it than a single rover can.
With the mission selection to Reiner Gamma, NASA began an enhanced science phase of its CLPS program. The next mission in this phase will visit the pristine Schrödinger crater on the Moon’s farside in 2024, followed by a mission to the volcanic domes of Gruithuisen in 2025, and another south polar mission by early 2026. NASA says future CLPS missions could also deliver more advanced rovers and technology demonstrations, and even infrastructure required by Artemis human landing missions.
A new commercial model for planetary missions
Landing on the Moon is hard. Only three countries have accomplished this feat so far — the U.S., the Soviet Union and China. The fact that NASA is entrusting commercial companies with the agency’s crucial lunar scientific and technological objectives, many of which will directly affect their Artemis plans, shows their growing confidence in building a commercial ecosystem around lunar exploration.
CLPS also inverts the tradition of having only custom-built planetary missions to meet specific scientific goals. If enough of the CLPS missions stick the landing, it would open up frequent and periodic access to the Moon’s surface for diverse scientific investigations in ways never possible before for any planetary body.
Acknowledgments: This page was initially authored by Jatan Mehta in 2022.