Moon Express's MX-1 lander. Credit: Moon Express artist's concept

COLUMBIA, Md. — NASA announced Nov. 1 that it is seeking information regarding instruments that could be flown to the moon on future commercial spacecraft, with one company that is developing a lander offering financial support for their development.

The request for information (RFI) released by NASA seeks details about “small payloads that could be delivered to the moon as early as the 2017–2020 timeframe using U.S. commercial lunar cargo transportation service providers.” The RFI, issued though NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, is focused on instruments and experiments that address “strategic knowledge gaps” in robotic and human lunar exploration, versus pure science investigations.

“We’re asking for information about the maturity of the instruments,” said John Guidi, deputy director of the Advanced Exploration Systems division, in a presentation at the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) meeting here. That includes whether the payload is a flight spare from another program or could be assembled quickly.

There is no firm definition of “small” in terms of the types of payloads they are seeking information about. “We didn’t specify a particular mass, size or cost constraint,” said Nantel Suzuki, Advanced Exploration Systems program executive, at the LEAG meeting. “The intent here is to solicit for payloads that would be suitable for delivery with emerging U.S. commercial transportation services to the moon.”

The RFI does not mention specific companies, but two American companies, Astrobotic and Moon Express, are actively developing commercial lunar landers that are designed to accommodate instruments and other payloads. Both companies are competing in the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers a $20 million grand prize for the first private spacecraft to land on the moon, travel at least 500 meters and return video and other data.

NASA, for the time being, is only soliciting ideas, and is not providing funding for any payloads. “We’re not planning on purchasing instruments or flying anything officially,” Guidi said. Depending on the responses, though, “we might consider assistance with commercial payload delivery services and taking instruments to the lunar surface.”

If NASA does later provide funding, it will do so in expectation that it shares the cost of developing the instrument with the organization providing it. “We’re budget constrained all the time,” Suzuki said. “So we are looking for opportunities for payloads that are already in development or other opportunities to cost-share.”

While NASA is not currently providing any funding, one of the commercial lander companies is. Moon Express separately announced Nov. 1 its “Lunar Scout” program, where it will provide $500,000 each for up to three instruments ultimately selected by NASA to fly on its lunar lander, assuming NASA does proceed with a payload competition of some kind.

“The Moon Express Lunar Scout Program is designed to expand our partnership with NASA and support the lunar science community with new low cost lunar orbiter and surface missions,” Moon Express Chief Executive Bob Richards said in a statement announcing the initiative.

Those payloads could fly as soon as 2017, when Moon Express plans to begin launching a series of small lunar landers both to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize competition and for other commercial purposes. The company has not disclosed technical details about its payload accommodations, including available mass and power.

Moon Express has previously worked with NASA in the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) program to promote the development of commercial lunar landers. That effort included technical support by NASA for Moon Express’ lunar lander systems.

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...