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Astrobotic lunar rover illustration
Astrobotic Technology is one of 26 teams competing the Google Lunar X PRIZE, most with rovers that NASA recommends stay outside of a specific boundary for specific lunar landing sites. (credit: Astrobotic Technology, Inc.)

Tiptoeing back to the Moon

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The commercial space headlines in recent weeks have been dominated by a couple of ventures. Last month it was Planetary Resources, the startup unveiled in Seattle on April 24 with ambitious plans to study and, eventually, extract water ice and other resources from asteroids (see “Planetary Resources believes asteroid mining has come of age”, The Space Review, April 30, 2012). More recently it has been SpaceX, as the company prepares for a test flight of its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (see “The big test”, The Space Review, May 14, 2012). With Saturday’s scrubbed literally at the last second because of a faulty valve in one of the Falcon 9’s first-stage engines, it will continue to be in the news for some time to come: as of this writing the launch was rescheduled for the early morning hours of Tuesday.

Those efforts have taken longer than expected when the Google Lunar X PRIZE was first announced in September 2007, but 26 teams remain in the competition at varying levels of activity.

Lost in this attention to asteroid mining and commercial space transportation ventures has been the slow but steady progress by some of the groups competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) competition, which offers $30 million in prizes for non-government teams that can land a spacecraft on the Moon and move across it, returning video and other data. Last month Astrobotic Technology released plans for a rover called Polaris, designed to operate at the lunar poles and search for deposits of water ice and other volatiles trapped in permanently shadowed areas of craters there. Moon Express also announced last month that it had submitted technical plans to NASA under its Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data contract about how it would acquire resources such as platinum group metals on the Moon. The company also announced the formation of a scientific advisory board to assist its efforts in resource prospecting.

Resource prospecting, be it for ice or precious metals, will only come after those companies, and others, mount initial missions to the Moon in order to capture the prize purse. Those efforts have taken longer than expected when the prize was first announced in September 2007 (see “Still eyeing the lunar prize”, The Space Review, August 8, 2011) but 26 teams remain in the competition at varying levels of activity. The competition will be back in the spotlight somewhat this week with a joint NASA/GLXP announcement scheduled for Thursday morning during the Global Space Exploration (GLEX) conference in Washington, DC. The International Space Development Conference (ISDC), immediately following the GLEX conference in Washington, will also feature presentations about the competition.

Another session during the GLEX conference may touch upon one of the areas of concern about the competition. A Thursday afternoon session titled “Lunar Frontiers - Preserving Lunar History And Gaining Science Through Government-Commercial Collaboration” will feature NASA and GLXP representatives to “provide additional information and answer questions related to their joint efforts to preserve lunar history and ongoing lunar science.” With one of the “bonus” prizes for the competition being a “precision landing near an Apollo site or other lunar sites of interest”, some worry about the prospect of spacecraft crashing down on or near those historic sites, or rovers trampling across the historic footprints left by Apollo astronauts.

To address those concerns, NASA drafted last year a set of guidelines for how other spacecraft—be they GLXP competitors or government missions from other nations—should approach the landing sites of the Apollo missions and Surveyor spacecraft as well as crash sites of other missions. The guidelines establish “keep-out zones” around the sites for both landing and roving activities on the Moon.

Rob Kelso, who led the development of the guidelines at NASA last year, said the condition of the artifacts left behind by the Apollo missions is unknown. “We really don’t know what it looks like today,” he said during a presentation at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, last fall. “Is it still in a pristine state looking exactly like it did 40 years ago, or have parts of it been decimated by the harsh lunar environment?”

While there’s an understandable desire to preserve historic landing sites, Kelso said there’s scientific interest in studying how the artifacts at the sites have changed over those 40 years. This includes studying the transport of dust across the lunar surface, micrometeorite bombardment, and the effects of thermal cycling on hardware. “In a real sense, the hardware that still sits on the Moon are ongoing experiments in scientific witness planes, in looking at environmental impacts within the lunar environment over time,” he said.

“In a real sense, the hardware that still sits on the Moon are ongoing experiments in scientific witness planes, in looking at environmental impacts within the lunar environment over time,” Kelso said.

To balance that desire to preserve history while still allowing for some study, the NASA guidelines create a series of boundaries that other spacecraft, like GLXP missions, should not cross. Spacecraft should not land within two kilometers of an Apollo or Surveyor site, and their landing trajectories should not overfly such a site even if the planned landing is outside the boundary. The Apollo 11 and 17 landing sites, because of their historic nature, are surrounded by boundaries that rovers should not cross: a 75-meter radius from the lander for Apollo 11 and 225 meters for Apollo 17.

Rovers would be able to more closely approach the other four Apollo landing sites. Even there, though, they would not be able to actually make contact with any of the artifacts there: the guidelines establish a 3-meter boundary around the descent stage and 1-meter boundaries around other items, including the lunar rover, experiments, and other items. Spacecraft impact sites are treated less rigorously: spacecraft can land as close as 500 meters from them, and rovers can go up to the rim and even into craters created by those impacts, provided they do no touch any spacecraft debris.

The guidelines are just that: recommendations, and not requirements, for other spacecraft operators to follow. Kelso added in his ISPCS presentation that these recommendations apply only to NASA spacecraft and not to those from other nations. Despite their advisory nature, some space lawyers note that there are means for the US to protect its hardware on the Moon through both space law and traditional property and tort laws (see “Protecting Apollo artifacts on the Moon”, The Space Review, November 7, 2011).

Following the guidelines, though, could have implications for some GLXP teams. While most teams are developing rovers, the contest rules don’t explicitly require the use of rovers to meet the prize objectives. Some teams are instead developing “hoppers” that traverse the 500 meters required in the prize rules by lifting off again and flying to another landing site. Under the NASA recommendations, though, those hoppers could not approach within the two-kilometer landing boundary established for the Apollo sites, while rovers could come with within three meters of the Apollo 12, 14, 15, and 16 landing stages.

That means the teams using hoppers may not qualify for the $1-million bonus prize for landing near an Apollo site, depending on the specific details of the rule. One team developing a hopper, Next Giant Leap, is not particularly concerned about that requirement. “Our GLXP mission does not require close inspection of the Apollo sites,” said Michael Joyce, leader of the Next Giant Leap team, earlier this year when asked about the potential restriction. “The guidelines do allow for a sufficiently close fly over to meet the GLXP bonus prize imaging requirements.”

Meeting those NASA recommendations is a small challenge compared to the much larger technical and financial challenges of developing a mission in the first place. Under the original GLXP rules, the $20-million first prize was to decrease to $15 million at the end of this year if no team had won it; given the longer-than-anticipated development timelines, the X PRIZE Foundation reworked the rules to keep the prize at $20 million until “a government-funded mission successfully explores the lunar surface,” according to the rules summary, a milestone it predicts to happen in 2013.

As demonstrated by the strong public interest in the recent developments by Planetary Resources and SpaceX, it may be a GLXP team that triggers a wave of interest, support, and financing for a new era of exploration and even exploitation of the Moon.

Even teams with strong corporate backing, like the Rocket City Space Pioneers, have found it difficult to close a business case for a GLXP mission. Team leader Tim Pickens said at last month’s Space Access ’12 conference in Phoenix that they had hoped to generate revenue by selling secondary payload slots on the Falcon 9 rocket they’ll use to launch their rover. Those secondary payloads would be dropped off in geostationary transfer orbit before their mission goes on to the Moon. “If we sold rideshares, we’d have financed our system,” he said. “In fact we would have been about breakeven even if we crashed into the Moon with our lander.”

The problem, he said, is they haven’t found rideshare customers for their mission. “We have got to get away from this current model because it does not work,” he said of the rideshare approach. They’re looking at alternative approaches, such as being a secondary payload themselves on someone else’s launch, or making up the lost rideshare revenue with sponsorships. Both approaches, though, have their own issues, Pickens said.

A lack of interest in the Moon currently may also be an issue in lining up customers, Pickens said. He noted that the GLXP started when NASA was still planning a human return to the Moon by 2020, an effort canceled by the Obama Administration two years ago because of cost and schedule issues. Yet, as demonstrated by the strong public interest in the recent developments by Planetary Resources and SpaceX, it may be a GLXP team—perhaps one that tiptoes carefully among the artifacts left behind by an earlier era of exploration—that triggers a wave of interest, support, and financing for a new era of exploration and even exploitation of the Moon.