WASHINGTON — NASA selected Firefly Aerospace to land payloads on the far side of the moon and to place a European satellite into lunar orbit.
NASA announced March 14 it awarded a $112 million task order through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to Texas-based Firefly Aerospace for a 2026 mission to the moon using the company’s Blue Ghost lander.
Unlike previous CLPS missions, which have focused solely on delivering payloads to the lunar surface, the Blue Ghost 2 mission will also place a satellite into lunar orbit for NASA. (Some earlier missions with CLPS awards will also carry satellites, but not as explicit elements of the CLPS award.) The mission will deliver the Lunar Pathfinder spacecraft, built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. for the European Space Agency, which will serve as a communications relay for other spacecraft on or around the moon.
ESA and NASA announced in June 2022 that they would cooperate on Lunar Pathfinder. NASA would provide a launch of Lunar Pathfinder using CLPS and, in turn, be able to use the spacecraft for communications.
The Blue Ghost lander will then deliver to the far side of the moon the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment-Night (LuSEE-Night) payload developed by a partnership that includes NASA, the University of California Berkeley and the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. LUSEE-Night will take advantage of the radio-quiet conditions on the lunar farside to perform radio astronomy observations of the early universe.
The lander will also carry for NASA a new communications terminal to support LUSEE-Night and to commission Lunar Pathfinder. Firefly said in a statement that the spacecraft will be able to carry other payloads for additional government and commercial customers.
The award is the second that Firefly has received through CLPS. Its first CLPS mission, awarded in 2021, is scheduled to launch in 2024, landing in the Mare Crisium region of the near side of the moon. It will carry 10 NASA payloads as well as two commercial payloads.
Firefly said the Blue Ghost 2 mission will use both a transfer stage and the lander, enabling it to both deliver Lunar Pathfinder into orbit and land on the moon. That system could be used for other applications, from interplanetary missions to lunar sample return.
“This mission will debut Firefly’s unique two-stage Blue Ghost spacecraft, offering NASA and other customers multiple deployment options as we collectively build the infrastructure for ongoing lunar operations and planetary exploration,” Bill Weber, chief executive of Firefly, said in a statement about the award.
The award to Firefly is the ninth overall in the CLPS program, spread across five companies. Intuitive Machines has won three CLPS task orders, with its first mission, IM-1, scheduled to launch later this year. Astrobotic has won two, including its Peregrine lander scheduled to launch in May on the first Vulcan Centaur rocket and a 2024 mission to deliver NASA’s VIPER lunar rover.
Draper won a task order for the first farside CLPS mission, launching in 2025. A ninth task order was awarded to Masten Space Systems in 2020, but its status remains uncertain after Masten filed for bankruptcy last year and had most of its assets acquired by Astrobotic.
NASA started the CLPS program several years ago to enable low-cost access to the moon for lunar science and technology demonstration payloads. Agency officials emphasized a “shots-on-goal” philosophy for CLPS, with the expectation that not all missions will be successful.
Getting the first missions off the ground to attempt those shots on goal has taken longer than expected. The initial CLPS awards, made in 2019, projected launches by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines in 2021.
“We’ve been looking at that in terms of trying to understand what really drove that and how that might change our planning for the future,” said Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, during a panel at the Goddard Memorial Symposium March 8.
Scientists who plan to fly payloads on CLPS missions remain upbeat about its prospects to open up the moon for enhanced exploration. “The CLPS program is going to open doors for us to do lunar science all across the lunar surface,” said Rachel Klima, director of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium at the Applied Physics Laboratory, on that panel.
She noted that while NASA’s planning for Artemis will focus on establishing a “base camp” in the south polar region of the moon, CLPS missions can visit the rest of the lunar surface. “It drives great science. It drives competition among the different providers and hopefully builds this new economy, driving technical development and innovations that we can use on Earth as well.”