Last updated July 20, 2018 at 3:01 pm
Decision calls into question the space agency’s directive to focus on the Moon.
NASA has reportedly pulled the plug on Resource Prospector – its next robotic Moon mission, despite being tasked with returning humanity to our closest neighbour. The unexpected and unexplained move has angered lunar scientists, and confused space industry professionals about the space agency’s priorities.
The small rover, parts of which are already undergoing testing and planned for launch in 2022, was designed to excavate materials such as hydrogen, oxygen, and water from the lunar poles. These studies were seen as a crucial step in returning humans to the Moon.
However the mission came to a screaming halt last week, with Resource Prospector cancelled on 23 April and given a deadline to close down by the end of May. That is seemingly at direct odds with Space Directive 1 which directs NASA to the lunar surface.
The main goal of Resource Prospector was to investigate what minerals, and importantly how much, are at the poles of the Moon.
Previously the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) missions had proven that water lurked at the Moon’s poles in the form of ice. The rover mission would build on that knowledge by sampling at the site to find out that ice’s composition and quantify how much was there.
Knowing that, and other minerals present in the area, could drastically change the plans for future manned missions to the Moon.
Humans living and working on the Moon and exploring its surface will need to produce their own breathable air and drinking water.
Water, as well as hydrogen and oxygen individually present already on the moon could be used as the source of these vital consumables. In addition, it is thought there will be varying quantities of other volatile chemicals such as nitrogen, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide, among others.
It also opens up the possibility for using these same building blocks to create rocket fuel in situ, as well as a mineral source for manufacturing in space.
However, in order to even progress these past the ideas stage, we’d need to know how much of these resources were available, and whether we can even access them easily. And that’s where Resource Prospector would have come into its own, with its capacity to search the area and take and analyse samples.
It was NASA’s only planned mission for the surface of the Moon.
The move to end Resource Prospector’s mission appears to have stemmed from a decision in March to move the project out of the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, and into the Science Mission Directorate.
What at first glance might seem an understandable decision, the created the circumstances for Resource Protector’s cancellation. According to members of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, a group of scientists who advise NASA on lunar missions who are vocally protesting the decision and have released a letter sent to new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine urging a reconsideration, the move created a “misalignment between RP’s goals and schedule and the new lunar program within SMD (which has different goals, timelines, and insufficient capability to deliver the RP payload”.
The Lunar Exploration Analysis Group was not actively involved in the development of the rover.
As the mission was developed to be highly focused on discovering and utilising lunar resources in support of eventual human missions, it technically doesn’t fit with the SMD’s portfolio.
Instead of the SMD changing the mission objectives, implementation, and risk analysis, which would have delayed the launch, SMD instead decided to scrap the mission completely.
Just a few days after the decision had been made, and the same day they Lunar Exploration Analysis Group’s letter was sent, Bridenstine tweeted “Excited to get to work on our plan to sustainably return America to the surface of the Moon starting with an aggressive robotic program.”
Great 3rd day on the job with the @NASA family. Excited to get to work on our plan to sustainably return America to the surface of the Moon starting with an aggressive robotic program.
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) April 26, 2018
In response to the cancellation, NASA released this statement.
“NASA is developing an exploration strategy to meet the agency’s expanded lunar exploration goals. Consistent with this strategy, NASA is planning a series of progressive robotic missions to the lunar surface. In addition, NASA has released a request for information on approaches to evolve progressively larger landers leading to an eventual human lander capability. As part of this expanded campaign, selected instruments from Resource Prospector will be landed and flown on the Moon. This exploration campaign reinforces Space Policy Directive 1, which calls for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, including returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration.”
While the statement gives some indication that the instruments planned for Resource Prospector might be used on future missions instead, it doesn’t explain why the work until now was being allowed to be scrapped, a move which seems to fly in direct conflict with Space Policy Directive 1 at a time when NASA should appear to be actively responding to it.
Engineers had been working for around four years on the design and development of the rover hardware, and working out what instrumentation it would require, progressing it to a point where it would undergo a major design review and sign off process at the end of the year. Testing of the rover design was carried out in 2015.
The statement also gives no indication of what – or crucially, when – the future missions would be, nor how the instruments would be used or for what objective. With Resource Prospector the only lunar surface mission on the slate, any new missions would have to start from scratch.
We’re committed to lunar exploration @NASA. Resource Prospector instruments will go forward in an expanded lunar surface campaign. More landers. More science. More exploration. More prospectors. More commercial partners. Ad astra! https://t.co/FaxO6WUDow
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) April 27, 2018
And this is why the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group is so concerned. A seemingly viable, valuable, in development mission has been scrapped with no idea of what will take its place.
In their letter to Bridenstine, the group’s primary call is for the Resource Prospector to be “re-instated as an exploration mission within HEOMD (Human Exploration and Operations Directorate) – as it was originally designed. This would be the most effective way forward for NASA to respond positively to Space Policy Directive 1.
“RP has been designed as a prospecting mission, to fill Strategic Knowledge Gaps in the extent, accessibility and composition of polar ice as a human exploitable resource, and thus, is appropriate for implementation through HEOMD.”
Resource Prospector would have ultimately provided information directing what future human missions to the moon would actually do.
With information on what minerals are present, and how accessible they are, astronauts would have been able to develop technology to exploit the Moon’s resources specific to the conditions.
That could have been producing breathable air or water, or rocket propellant. Missions from Earth would be able to refuel on the Moon for further travel, or to return to Earth, saving significant costs of carrying that extra fuel off Earth.
However, knowing how accessible the resources are would have gone a long way to accelerating that process, or even knowing if it was a viable option. Knowing that we can access them, and having an idea of how, means engineers can start to design the equipment that will mine it.
This mining and extraction wouldn’t necessarily need to be carried out by NASA or other government agencies, with numerous private companies already looking into lunar mining. This could foster a lunar economy, with private and government groups working in collaboration – another directive handed to NASA from the US Government.
As this would all require human exploration, it should fall under the HEOMD remit, claim the scientists.
The Lunar Exploration Analysis Group also point out that the HEOMD and SMD priorities aren’t mutually exclusive, and Resource Prospector could serve across both. “There are many overlapping objectives between the scientific and exploration assessment of polar volatile deposits.”
The cancellation of Resource Prospector has also raised fears that delays to the new missions could lead the United States to losing out on the crucial polar resources themselves.
The original mission, landing in 2022, would have given NASA a three-year headstart over other international robotic missions also targeting polar resource exploration. That is now at serious risk with the cancellation.
“It is critical that NASA provide strong leadership in documenting that lunar surface return is being actively pursued. Cancellation of the only NASA lunar surface mission currently under development to obtain strategic data from the Moon’s polar regions is not the way to signal that intention… RP would be a pathfinder for NASA’s contribution to the space economy.”
It was NASA’s sole option for going to the Moon, and a vital piece in getting humans back to the Moon as quickly as possible. And now it’s gone and any replacement will be some distance behind it.