LRO in orbit
NASA's only current lunar mission is Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, developed as part of the Vision for Space Exploration and launched in 2009. Credit: NASA

COLUMBIA, Md. — NASA is in discussions about potential roles it could play on an upcoming series of Russian robotic lunar missions, including landers and sample return spacecraft.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, told attendees of the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) here Oct. 11 that he recently returned from a trip to Russia that included talks about cooperation on those future Russian lunar missions.

“There’s been good reception by the Russian space agency to some of the concepts that we discussed relative to NASA’s involvement, potentially, in Luna-25 through Luna-28,” he said. “This is a potential opportunity to the community.

He declined to discuss the details of that potential cooperation, which could range from scientists participating on the teams to the incorporation of NASA-funded instruments on those missions. “I can’t delineate everything that we discussed,” he said. “You need to give us a little more time.”

The Russian state space corporation Roscosmos has been studying a series of lunar missions for several years, starting with a lander named Luna-25. Other missions in the series include an orbiter, Luna-26; a lander to study the south polar regions of the moon, Luna-27; and a sample return mission, also perhaps exploring the south polar regions, Luna-28.

A chart in Green’s presentation showed Luna-25 launching in 2019, with the other three missions scheduled for 2021 through 2024. Those missions, though, have already been delayed by several years because of funding problems and conflicts with other missions, such as Russia’s participation in the ExoMars missions with Europe.

Those discussions come as scientists ponder the prospects for more lunar science missions as part of a change in national space policy reemphasizing human lunar exploration. Vice President Mike Pence formally announced that policy change at the first meeting of the reconstituted National Space Council Oct. 5, although the details of how that will be implemented have yet to be determined.

For scientists, part of that strategy will include cooperation on other nations’ lunar missions. Beyond potential roles on Russia’s series of missions, NASA is working with South Korea on its first lunar orbiter, the Korea Lunar Pathfinder Orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2020. NASA is providing an instrument that will fly on that mission, and Green said that NASA will seek applications for a participating scientist program for that mission in 2018.

NASA is also planning a conference to be held in January at the Ames Research Center to study lunar science for future lander missions. “This conference coming up is incredibly important” for planning for those future missions, Green said, including identifying science priorities that be incorporated into mission concepts for the next planetary science decadal survey due out in the early 2020s. He said he expected European, Russian, and other international participation in that meeting.

A lunar sample return mission, known as Moonrise, has been proposed in the next round of New Frontiers medium-class planetary science missions. Green said he expected the agency to select several proposals, out of the dozen submitted, for additional study by December, with a final selection made in mid-2019 for launch by 2025.

NASA does have, outside of its science program, a robotic lunar mission under study. Resource Prospector would land a rover on the moon to characterize water ice deposits that could be essential resources for future missions, including human exploration.

NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division has funded work on Resource Prospector (RP) at a relatively low level, as the agency sought potential international partners who could fly the rover to the moon on their own lander. The mission’s advocates believe that the new exploration policy could benefit the mission.

“The political environment, I’ll just say, was not as conducive as it is now to going to the moon,” said Anthony Colaprete, Resource Prospector project scientist, in an Oct. 10 talk about the mission at the LEAG meeting. He said that it is less likely that the mission will fly through an international partnership, which had been difficult to develop. Now, he said the preferred path is to fly as part of a public-private partnership on a commercial lunar lander mission.

“We have pressed forward, not pausing,” he said, with the mission approaching a preliminary design review. “RP is poised to keep moving forward.”

NASA’s one operational lunar mission dates back to the agency’s previous human lunar exploration program. NASA developed the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) as part of its implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration in the mid-2000s, intending it to study the moon in detail as a precursor to human missions there. However, by the time it launched in 2009, those plans were on the way out.

LRO remains in good health after more than eight years in lunar orbit, said Noah Petro, deputy project scientist for the mission, in an Oct. 10 presentation. The spacecraft has enough propellant remaining to operate for up to 11 years, provided it makes no major maneuvers during that time.

“We’re looking forward to cooperating with any future mission of any size to the moon,” he said, which could include support for future exploration missions. “We still have a lot left literally in the tank and figuratively in the tank.”

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...