NASA selects Intuitive Machines for CLPS lunar landing mission

by

LAS VEGAS — NASA awarded a $77.5 million contract to Intuitive Machines Nov. 17 for the delivery of four payloads to the surface of the moon in 2024.

NASA said it selected Intuitive Machines and its Nova-C lander for the 2024 mission, the seventh in its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The lander will touch down in Reiner Gamma, a “lunar swirl” near the western edge of the near side of the moon associated with a strong local magnetic field whose origins remain unclear.

“Observing lunar swirls can give us information about the moon’s radiation environment and perhaps how to mitigate its effects,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in a statement. “With more and more science and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface, we can help prepare for sustainable astronaut missions through Artemis.”

The mission, called IM-3 by Intuitive Machines, will deliver four payloads to Reiner Gamma, with a total mass of 92 kilograms. Lunar Vertex will study the region’s magnetic field using instruments on the lander as well as a separate rover. The Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration (CADRE) will use small rovers, working as an autonomous team, to study the lunar surface. MoonLIGHT, from the European Space Agency, is a laser retroflector. The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute is providing the Lunar Space Environment Monitor (LUaSEM) to measure high-energy particles.

IM-3 is the third lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, all using its Nova-C lander. The IM-1 mission is currently scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 2022 and will attempt to land at Oceanus Procellarum. IM-2, scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2022, will go to the south pole of the moon.

The company announced plans for IM-3 in August, selecting SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch the lander. At the time Intuitive Machines said it had not selected a landing site for the mission and that the lander had an “open manifest for commercial and civil customers.”

The mission will also be able to carry up to 1,000 kilograms of secondary payloads on a dispenser ring that can be deployed in a lunar transfer orbit. Intuitive Machines said that the IM-3 mission will carry a data relay satellite called Khon2 to be placed at the Earth-moon L-2 point. That is part of its lunar data relay services program called Khonstellation by the company that includes a communications satellite placed in lunar orbit on the IM-2 mission.

“This win is another example of our commitment to help lay the foundation for a sustained long-term presence on the lunar surface,” Steve Altemus, president and chief executive of Intuitive Machines, said in a statement.

The award is the seventh in the CLPS program. In addition to the three Intuitive Machines landers, Astrobotic has won two missions and Firefly Space Systems and Masten Space Systems one each. Three of those missions — IM-1, IM-2 and Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander — are scheduled to launch in 2022.

“We went from 50 years of nothing going to the moon to seven deliveries scheduled over the next three and a half years,” said Chris Culbert, manager of the CLPS program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ ASCEND conference Nov. 17. Those seven missions will carry more than 45 NASA instruments, from small experiments to the VIPER rover that will prospect for water ice at the lunar south pole.

“Relying on commercial entities allows us to go much faster, and we’ve very pleased with the pricing we’re seeing for these services,” he said, but added a caveat. “They actually haven’t landed on the moon yet, and that last step is very important.”