A series of media reports, including a February 3, 2014 story in the UK Telegraph, suggests that NASA is getting ready to “return to the moon” with a joint probe called RESOLVE it has developed with the Canadian Space Agency. The one problem with that is that an American mission to land on the moon, even a robot, has not received funding. Furthermore NASA lacks a landing vehicle capable of delivering RESOLVE to the lunar surface.
RESOLVE has been a concept being developed by NASA and Canada for the past several years to test lunar prospecting and resource extracting technologies. The idea is that a rover would land at the lunar South Pole to prospect for and drill for ice thought to exist in the permanently shadowed portions of craters. The rover would also contain a chemical plant (with an oxygen and volatiles extraction node, gas chromatograph, and mass spectrometer. Thus the mission would test in situ resource utilization technologies that would be vital for future lunar explorers and colonists. The cost is estimated to be $250 million, placing it well within the range of a Discovery Class mission. Launch would take place in 2018.
Furthermore, if a RESOLVE rover could be created that is light enough, it could be matched with a commercially acquired lander under the Lunar CATALYST program, thus combing science, exploration, and the enabling of space commerce in one package. It would be seen as a proper response to the Chinese Chang’e 3 mission that landed the Yutu rover on the lunar surface in December, 2013.
On the other hand, avoidance of lunar exploration is still part of Obama administration space policy as articulated in 2010. Sending a rover whose purpose is to test prospecting and resource extraction technology on the moon could be seen as the camel’s nose in the tent to restart lunar exploration.