CLPS lander illustration
An illustration of a notional commercial lander. NASA awarded more than $250 million to three companies May 31 to land NASA payloads on the moon by the summer of 2021. Credit: NASA

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — NASA and its Australian counterpart have agreed to cooperate on a future robotic lander mission where Australia will provide a small rover as part of a test of resource utilization technologies.

NASA and the Australian Space Agency announced Oct. 12 that Australia will provide a rover that will be included on a commercial lunar lander mission no earlier than 2026 as part of the country’s role in the NASA-led Artemis lunar exploration effort.

The rover, weighing no more than 20 kilograms, will scoop up lunar regolith and return it to the lander, depositing it into a NASA in situ resource utilization (ISRU) experiment on the lander. That ISRU payload will then attempt to extract oxygen from iron and silicon oxide compounds in the regolith.

The rover is part of an Australian program called Trailblazer, the flagship element of the government’s “Moon to Mars Initiative” announced in 2019. The Australian government is committing $150 million Australian ($110 million) to that initiative over five years, leveraging technologies that Australia has expertise with, such as mining and robotic operations, for lunar exploration.

“Australia is at the cutting edge of robotics technology and systems for remote operations, which are going to be central to setting up a sustainable presence on the moon and eventually supporting human exploration of Mars,” Enrico Palermo, head of the Australian Space Agency, said in a statement.

Neither the Australian Space Agency nor NASA disclosed many details about the rover or the mission it will fly on. The Australian Space Agency said that an “industry-led consortium of Australian businesses and research organizations” will develop what it calls the “foundation services rover,” so named because it can provide services that can be the foundation of future permanent human outposts. The agency said that will provide additional details about the mission later this year and solicit proposals in early 2022.

Australia’s lunar exploration initiative stems from a September 2019 agreement with NASA, where the country announced its intent to participate in Artemis and made that $150 million contribution. Australia was also among the first countries to sign the Artemis Accords in October 2020.

Australian officials see the space industry generally, and the lunar exploration initiative specifically, as an opportunity to grow the country’s economy and role on the global stage.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Australia to succeed in the global space sector and is central to our government’s vision to secure more jobs and a larger share of the growing space economy,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement, citing the government’s goal of tripling the Australian space economy to $12 billion by 2030 and creating up to 20,000 jobs.

“This agreement will serve to strengthen the longtime relationship between the United States and Australia in areas related to space exploration, a relationship that goes back more than half a century to the days of the Apollo program,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in an agency statement.

While NASA welcomed the Australian rover contribution, it also suggested the rover would not be on the critical path for the ISRU payload flying on that future lander mission. NASA noted in its statement that the ISRU experiment will have its own means of collecting regolith. The Australian rover, the agency stated, “offers a second means of collection and increases the overall chances of a successful demonstration.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...