NASA’s long-running Commercial Crew Program is a major part of the agency’s plans to expand spaceflight, but the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) is almost as important. As we look toward new moon landings, the CLPS will get the supplies and instruments we need to the lunar surface. Now, NASA has developed a possible way to land them there cheaply and easily. NASA calls it a lunar lander reference design, but we prefer to think of it as the lunar version of a flatbed truck.
Several of the contracts awarded under the CLPS call for companies to design robotic vehicles that can explore the lunar surface. As we know from Curiosity, sometimes landing a rover can be a complex engineering problem that adds significantly to the cost. The concept lunar lander reference design could make things easier for all involved by standardizing the descent vehicle. It’s essentially a platform with rails that keeps the rover in place as it descends to the moon with the aid of integrated boosters.
The landers transported aboard the proposed lander could start their journey aboard a commercial rocket like a Falcon 9. After separating from the rocket, the lander would coast along toward the moon with the rover strapped in. It would then use a solid rocket motor to slow itself for the descent, ejecting the motor when expended. Attitude and descent control thrusters can take over from there, guiding the platform down for a soft landing in the moon’s low gravity.
NASA designed the lander platform to be inexpensive and easy to manufacture, with capacity for a 661-pound (300-kilogram) rover. Rather than using the most expensive and durable materials, it proposes off-the-shelf components that are still within tolerances but might cost 50 times less. There’s one emerging technology that NASA would have to design specifically for the lander, though. It needs a “Terrain Relative Navigation” system that can determine the precise landing location based on the terrain.
After landing, the rover could roll down the ramp and go off on its mission. The lander is not designed to survive a lunar night cycle, but the platforms could serve as important signposts if equipped with passive navigation beacons. Any further use cases would probably add to the cost, but the goal is to keep this part of the mission cheap and simple. NASA will announce at a later date if it decided to pursue the lunar lander reference design.
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