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NASA takes one small step for a robotic lunar lander

Moon as seen by Apollo 12
Moon as seen by Apollo 12NASA

NASA has made one small step, as it were, toward landing its own rover on the lunar surface, if a Friday space agency document published by SpaceRef is any indication. The document is a Request for Information (RFI) for what is called a short duration lunar resource prospecting mission. Specifically NASA would like to find out what private industry might be prepared to provide in the way of payload avionics systems and avionics elements.

The RFI is presumed to be for a lunar lander called RESOLVE or Regolith and Environmental Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction mission. The concept has been extensively tested on Earth, using a number of rovers developed by the Canadian Space Agency. The mission would land at the lunar south-pole and would use a drill and other instruments to prospect for lunar resources, such as ice, thought to be in shadowed parts of craters at the lunar south-pole. The rover would also contain a chemical plant (with an oxygen and volatiles extraction node, gas chromatograph, and mass spectrometer.

Currently RESOLVE is unfunded as a mission. At modest cost of $250,000 it could qualify as a NASA Discovery mission, a type of planetary undertaking that would be low cost, low duration following what was once called “faster, better, cheaper.” Past Discovery class missions included Lunar Prospector, Mars Pathfinder, Deep Impact, and Dawn. Estimated launch date of RESOLVE is thought to be in 2018. The RFI document notes that "The Government is under no obligation to issue a solicitation or to award any contract on the basis of this RFI."

Approving RESOLVE would be tricky politically. By directive of President Obama, the moon is off the table insofar as NASA exploration is concerned. RESOLVE, with its prospecting and ISRU (in situ resource utilization) goals would be seen as a precursor for a crewed expedition. On the other hand, the current president would be out of office by the time that the mission would depart for the lunar surface, to be replaced by a person who might be more friendly toward lunar exploration.