How NASA’s canceled lunar rover could still live on as a commercial mission

Last week, many scientists were surprised to discover that NASA had canceled its only planned lunar rover, a strange move since the mission could have helped with NASA's plans to return people to the Moon. But some in the private space flight industry see the cancellation as an opportunity for the rover to live as a business mission instead.

Called Resource Prospector, the mission would consist of a lunar lander that will carry a rover with a drill to the moon's surface. On Friday, NASA said that some of the rover's planned instruments will fly to the moon, only in future lunar landings. However, it seems that the space agency can no longer build the original rover it planned to make.

Some experts see it as a problem: the objective of Resource Prospector was to analyze how the water ice on the Moon and how accessible it is. Such information is critical for NASA and companies that want to extract resources from the Moon someday; Water ice could be used for drinking water or even as rocket fuel. But the only way to discover these details is to sample many different locations on the surface.

"The instruments themselves are only important if they are in a rover that can drill one or two meters down," Phil Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida who was part of the Resource Prospector's scientific team, account The Verge . "If you're only measuring in one place, it really does not tell you anything about [the water] as an economic resource."

However, some see the cancellation of the rover as an opportunity to change the reigns of NASA's Resource Prospector to the commercial space industry. The objective of the mission, just before it was canceled, was for NASA to design and supervise the construction of the lunar vehicle, while a commercial company supplied the lander, according to Metzger. Now it is possible that the commercial space industry can provide both parts and still execute the mission as planned. "If NASA rejected the idea for the industry, the industry would find ways to do it," says Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, The Verge .

That could help free up NASA funds for other projects. The space agency was working to obtain a budget of $ 250 million for Resource Prospector, but commercial companies could now assume a larger share of the development costs. NASA could then pay private industry for its services, and then the companies would have landing modules and rovers to sell to other customers.

It's this kind of strategy, in association with the commercial space industry, in which NASA is focusing to make its return to the Moon happen. On Friday, the space agency said it would soon seek ideas from commercial companies for rockets and small spacecraft that can carry NASA instruments and payloads to the lunar surface. It is the beginning of the Trump administration's long-term plan to send humans to the Moon. The president's budget request for NASA, launched in February, calls on the space agency to begin funding small-to-medium-sized lunar landers in the coming years. Then, in 2024, the space agency will start financing landers that can transport humans.

Many companies are anxious to meet the call to build landers for NASA. A company, called Moon Express, hopes to send a fleet of landing modules to extract the Moon. Another, called Astrobotic, wants to set up a lunar delivery service. Both companies are working on their own commercial landers to fly in the next few years, and Astrobotic is also working on a rover, the Polaris, which could carry a drill. "If NASA needs a mobile vehicle to send something to the Moon, we would be happy to take advantage of them," says Jim Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, The Verge .

Engineers from NASA. I had been working on the Resource Prospector for four years and had already tried some prototypes. The plan was to fly it in 2022, although the mission had not undergone a final design review and was never fully funded. Still, canceling the mission now may mean waiting longer for a similar business mission to join. Astrobotic says it could have its Polaris rover ready in a similar time frame, although it is a much smaller vehicle so the mission would have to be modified.

"As far as I know, there is not a lander capable of doing what the Resource Prospector mission required. "says Metzger. "Maybe they can get Astrobotic on contract fast enough and Astrobotic can start modifying their rover and re-joining [a similar] the mission, that's what I'd like to see."

For now, it is unknown if NASA will revive the Resource Prospector mission with a fully commercial rover. Metzger expects NASA's new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, to respond with clearer answers about the fate of the mission. Last week, Bridenstine made say that NASA is committed to sending many robots to the lunar surface. Then, it is possible that Resource Prospector may return in a different way.