Ever since President Obama foreswore interest in returning to the moon in his April 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center, lunar exploration has been on the back burner at NASA. According to a Monday story at Space News, that may change starting around 2020 thanks to a project called RP15, the letters standing for “Resource Prospector,” a rover designed to drill into the lunar regolith and collect samples for analysis. The rover, originating at NASA Ames Research Center, was recently tested on a simulated lunar surface at the Johnson Spaceflight Center south of Houston.
RP15 was built by the same team at JSC that developed Robonaut 2, now being tested on the International Space Station, with the software being written at Ames. The tests at JSC involved the rover being controlled by engineers at NASA Ames, half way across the country in California.
“Current plans for Resource Prospector call for launching the mission on a medium-class rocket, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, in 2020. The spacecraft would land on the lunar surface, near one of the poles, using a “crushable pad” landing system that eliminates the need for landing legs and makes it easier for the rover to roll off the lander and onto the lunar surface.
The rover will carry a neutron spectrometer to probe for water ice deposits into the lunar surface. The solar-powered rover would also make brief excursions into permanently shadowed regions of craters most likely to have near-surface deposits of ice, drilling for samples before retreating back into sunlit regions to analyze them.”
The mission would take place over a two-week period, the length of a lunar day. The timing and length of the mission would eliminate the need to harden the rover to survive the lunar night, a problem that bedeviled the Chinese rover Yutu, which landed on the moon almost two years ago as part of the Chang’e 3 mission. The overall cost of the Lunar Resource Prospector Mission would be $250 million, including launch.
The Obama administration is requiring NASA to seek either an international partner, Japan or Taiwan, or a commercial partner such as Moon Express or Astrobotic Technology to fly the Resource Prospector mission. The dictate is meant to not only share costs but also to get around the president’s ban on NASA conducting lunar exploration. In any event, the ban is complicating further funding. The project has thus far been paid for out of the space agency’s Advanced Exploration Systems program office. Whether or not further funding will be made available is uncertain.
Of course, a new administration, likely more friendly to lunar exploration, will be sworn into office in late January 2017. Then the politics, which is the only factor keeping the Lunar Resource Prospector on the ground, will have shifted for the better.