As NASA shifts its human spaceflight program towards a return to the moon, the programs supporting that new direction are creating opportunities for science both on and around the moon.

The agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal unveiled what NASA calls its “Exploration Campaign,” which features a set of interrelated programs devoted to enabling a human presence in cislunar space and, eventually, on the lunar surface. Those initiatives range from the development of progressively larger lunar landers to the study of lunar samples that have remained sealed since collected during the Apollo program.

NASA Exploration Campaign

One key element of the overall campaign is the development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, previously known as the Deep Space Gateway. While originally intended primarily to test technologies and operational techniques needed for future deep space missions, NASA officials said they’re seeing strong interest from scientists for using the human-tended facility for research.

“We wanted to jump on this pretty quickly,” said John Guidi, deputy director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, during a NASA town hall at the 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference March 19 in The Woodlands, Texas. The agency, he said, wanted to better understand the requirements of scientists interested in using the Gateway while the outpost is still in its early stage of development.

NASA helped organize a workshop in Denver at the end of February that brought together 300 scientists to discuss their ideas of how they would use the Gateway for their science and what they would need to carry out that research.

“We think it was pretty successful,” Guidi said of the workshop. There were 180 abstracts submitted on using the Gateway not just for lunar science but other astronomical and space science research, as well as microgravity and life sciences.

That research is shaping the requirements of the Gateway. Guidi said one finding from the meeting was that a number of scientists wanted to place experiments on the exterior of the Gateway’s modules, but the robotic arm that would enable that isn’t planned to be added to the outpost until later in its development. One solution, he said, might be to include some experiments on the exterior of the Power and Propulsion Module, the first element of the Gateway scheduled for launch in 2022.

Communications could be another issue. “Some of the experiments produce terabits of data, which surprised us,” he said. NASA is now considering separate payload data systems to perform on-board processing, reducing the amount of data that needs to be transmitted back to Earth.

In parallel with the development of the Gateway are plans for a series of robotic lunar lander missions. Those will start with small landers that make use of spacecraft already under commercial development, primarily by companies that previously competed in the Google Lunar X Prize.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at the town hall meeting that the agency will soon release announcements of opportunity for instruments for those commercial landers or potential international missions. One such announcement will be devoted to instruments that are already built, or nearly completed, and could fly on missions as soon as 2019.

“We want to work with commercial groups that are planning over the next year or two to go to the moon,” he said. “We want to make those connections and continue to be partners with them.”

Using commercial landers for NASA-funded experiments, rather than developing the landers themselves, will be new for NASA’s planetary science program. Green said that it should be comparable to flying instruments on missions by other nations. “We really want to jumpstart this and really want to help them get to the moon,” he said of those commercial partners.

While the new Exploration Campaign has helped new science initiatives, it’s put one proposed mission in question. NASA has been working for several years, at a low level of funding, on a rover called Resource Prospector that would look for ice in permanent shadowed regions of craters at the lunar poles. NASA had been looking at international and commercial options for getting the rover to the moon.

The 2019 budget proposal, though, suggested that the agency would no longer pursue Resource Prospector, at least as an independent mission.

“Right now it’s a little bit nebulous where it fits in,” said Guidi. “It’s still good science. We still want to see it move forward. We’re just waiting to see where it falls out, organizationally.”

That’s frustrating to some scientists. “Resource Prospector is the mission that keeps on promising and never delivers,” said Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

“We are still hopeful,” Guidi responded.

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...