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Who Will Carry Cargo to the Moon? NASA to Announce Contracts Today

NASA is going to land on the moon again, maybe as soon as next year.

The agency won't be sending people, though. Walk on the moon again at least five years before astronauts.

But on Friday, NASA is announcing the first contracts to send small experiments and technology packages to robotic spacecraft.

Although not exciting as a human mission, these would be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since the astronauts of Apollo 17 left in 1972.

In November, NASA announced that it had selected nine companies to compete for up to $ 2.6 billion over the next decade for taking payloads to the moon, part of a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services. These could be small experiments like retroreflectors – essentially, mirrors that reflect light in the direction it came from – which would enable precise measurements of the moon's gravity.

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These spacecraft would be small – far too small for astronauts, or even to carry supplies to the surface . However, these spacecraft could survey potential landing sites for human missions. They have been similar in size to Beresheet, the moon lander built by an Israeli nonprofit that attempted to land earlier this year but crashed. The next astronaut missions are to land near the lunar South Pole, where there is ice frozen in the eternal shadows of some craters.

The ice would not only be a source of water, but could also be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen. Both could provide propellant for rocket engines, and the oxygen would also provide air for astronauts to breathe.

No one knows how hard it will be to extract to ice; It could be mixed up with dirt and rocks

The missions could also deliver prototypes of future telescopes and other scientific instruments.

The companies, a mix of established NASA contractors and space start-ups , were:

  • Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh;

  • Deep Space Systems of Littleton, Colo .;

  • Draper or Cambridge, Mass .;

  • Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Tex .;

  • Intuitive Machines of Houston;

  • Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo .;

  • Masts Space Systems of Mojave, Calif .;

  • Moon Express of Cape Canaveral, Fla .;

  • Orbit Beyond of Edison, NJ

Unlike past moon programs, which have been designed and operated by NASA, the space agency wants to take a low-cost , high-risk approach.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator at NASA's science directorate, uses a hockey analogy: NASA wants to take many shots at the goal, not expecting all of them to score.

Some, maybe most, of these companies will likely fail. But the hope is that the effort kick-starts a new industry, essentially a FedEx or U.P.S. To the moon, much like SpaceX got into the business of carrying supplies to the International Space Station at lower cost and was able to use the same rocket for commercial satellite launches.

Eventually, the companies that could offer services not only to NASA but to companies also wanting to set up shop on the moon.

What is unknown is how skilled these companies are and how good at the goalie the moon is blocking spacecraft.

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