NASA CLPS Moon landing missions
A look at the armada of robotic landers NASA is riding to the Moon this decade.
NASA is returning humans to the Moon later in the decade, but a fleet of agency-supported robotic spacecraft will touch down on lunar soil starting this year.
With its $2.6 billion Commercial Lunar Payloads Services (CLPS) initiative, NASA has been competitively funding commercial companies to build spacecraft that will autonomously land on the Moon, carrying with them the agency’s science and technology payloads to geologically diverse places.
Upcoming CLPS Moon landings
To date, NASA has funded several commercial companies for these CLPS Moon landing missions:
Mission 1, Late 2023: $79.5 million contract to Astrobotic
Mission 2, June 2023: $77 million contract to Intuitive Machines
Mission 3, Late 2023: $47 million contract to Intuitive Machines
Mission 4, 2024: $93.3 million contract to Firefly
(Cancelled) Mission 5, November 2023: $75.9 million contract to Masten Space
Mission 7, 2024: $77.5 million contract to Intuitive Machines
Mission 8, 2025: $73 million contract to Draper
Mission 9, 2026: $112 million contract to Firefly
Unlike traditional missions, these CLPS missions will be fully built, operated and managed by their companies, with minimal oversight from NASA. The agency only dictates preferences for the landing sites, and the instruments it wants onboard.
These missions will also have non-NASA payloads from across the globe, something the agency encourages to spur a commercial lunar ecosystem. All landers on these missions will last a maximum of one lunar day—that is, 14 Earth days—since frigid night time temperatures, well below -100 degrees Celsius, will render the solar- and battery-powered landers non-functional.
Astrobotic’s first CLPS mission
By late 2023, Astrobotic’s lander will launch to touchdown in a lunar lava plain just outside the Gruithuisen volcanic domes, carrying well over a dozen payloads from 8 countries. These include 11 NASA instruments, chief of which are four spectrometers to study and track the movements of water on the Moon’s surface. The lander will also deploy a bevy of micro-rovers from 3 countries.
Intuitive Machines’ first CLPS mission
For its first CLPS mission in June 2023, Intuitive Machines will carry six NASA payloads to the polar Malapert A crater at 80° S. Most notably, the lander will have stereo cameras to record how its engine plumes impact the surface. This will help us quantify how rocket plumes interact with and kick off Moondust so that we can protect future surface spacecraft and habitats.
Intuitive Machines’ second CLPS mission
On its second Moon mission in late 2023, Intuitive Machines will deliver NASA’s PRIME-1 drill and a mass spectrometer to the Moon’s south pole. The lander will drill up to 1 meter below the surface and analyze the soil for water ice, a first such study. The lander will also deploy a rover on the surface to test Nokia’s 4G/LTE network on the Moon, another first. Further, there’s the company’s own NASA-supported hopper onboard called Micro-Nova, which will jump around the Moon with a camera to take high-resolution images of the surface under its flight path.
Masten’s first CLPS mission
Masten Space’s lander will touchdown on the Moon’s south pole in November 2023. It will have at least eight instruments onboard, chiefly to detect water ice and other volatiles such as methane and carbon dioxide to help us understand the Moon’s resource potential. The lander will also deploy Astrobotic’s shoebox-sized autonomous rover called MoonRanger. NASA is making use of its capabilities by putting a neutron spectrometer onboard to detect signs of water ice below the surface.
Update: On September 13, 2022, Astrobotic announced the acquisition of Masten Space Systems, including much of its space technology portfolio for $4.5 million, which followed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Masten. The eight payloads meant to fly on the Masten’s first CLPS mission might get transferred over to Astrobotic by the agency or be distributed among multiple CLPS flights.
VIPER rover delivery by Astrobotic
Astrobotic will deliver NASA’s VIPER rover on the Moon’s south pole in November 2024. The rover will explore areas in and around permanently shadowed regions for over 100 days, and use its drill and three instruments to unravel the nature of the Moon’s water ice deposits, assess their resource potential, and determine how accessible they are. This will help us plan future human missions to the Moon’s poles and eventually build sustainable habitats.
Firefly’s first CLPS mission
Firefly’s first Moon lander will descend in the lava plains of Mare Crisium in 2024, carrying several NASA instruments to study the lunar environment. One of the lander’s legs will feature PlanetVac, a low-cost soil sampling technology partially funded by The Planetary Society to enable future sample return missions from the Moon, Mars and other planetary bodies. This mission will also be NASA’s first attempt to get a GPS lock from the Moon. The mission also has two commercial payloads.
Intuitive Machines’ third CLPS mission
Intuitive Machines’ third Moon landing will be in the swirl of Reiner Gamma in 2024. Reiner Gamma has a weak local magnetic field, possibly a remnant from the time the Moon had a global magnetic field. The mission’s primary payload suite Lunar Vertex is a collection of spectrometers and magnetometers on the lander and a rover to study the swirl’s composition, and map the strength and direction of magnetic fields on the surface. This will help us better understand the effects of solar wind and bombarding micrometeorites on planetary bodies across the solar system, and shape our understanding of the Moon’s magnetic evolution. The lander will also deploy four small CADRE rovers from NASA, which will autonomously navigate the landed region and collectively better map it than a single rover can.
Draper’s farside CLPS mission
For its first CLPS mission in 2025, Draper will land a spacecraft on the Moon’s farside, a feat only achieved by China’s Chang’e 4 mission so far. The landing region chosen by NASA for the mission is no less impressive—the 312 kilometers wide Schrödinger crater, the most pristine impact feature of its kind. The lander will carry 95 kilograms of NASA’s scientific instruments, which includes two highly sensitive seismometers, a drill, a probe, and a magnetic sounder, all to help us better understand the Moon’s internal structure and composition, and how our cosmic neighbor evolved.
Firefly’s second CLPS mission
Firefly will deliver an orbiter and two surface payloads to the Moon in 2026. The company will use a similar lander design as its first CLPS mission but add a transfer stage to deliver the 280-kilogram Lunar Pathfinder orbiter for ESA in lunar orbit. Pathfinder is a stepping stone towards Moonlight, ESA’s upcoming commercial navigation and communications constellation. The Firefly lander itself will attempt a touchdown on the Moon’s farside carrying LuSEE-Night, a first of its kind instrument which will measure faint but unique radio signals from our Universe’s ‘Dark Age’—a slice of time right before the first stars were born. The lander will also host the “User Terminal” payload to enable LuSEE-Night to communicate to and fro Earth via Lunar Pathfinder.
With the mission selection to Reiner Gamma and Schrödinger, NASA began an enhanced science phase of its CLPS program. The next mission in this phase will visit the volcanic domes of Gruithuisen in 2026, and another south polar mission around the same time. NASA says future CLPS missions could also deliver more advanced rovers and technology demonstrations, and even infrastructure required by Artemis human landing missions.
A new commercial model for planetary missions
Landing on the Moon is hard. Only three countries have accomplished this feat so far—the U.S., the Soviet Union and China. The fact that NASA is entrusting commercial companies with the agency’s crucial lunar scientific and technological objectives, many of which will directly affect their Artemis plans, shows their growing confidence in building a commercial ecosystem around lunar exploration.
CLPS also inverts the tradition of having only custom-built planetary missions to meet specific scientific goals. If enough of the CLPS missions stick the landing, it would open up frequent and periodic access to the Moon’s surface for diverse scientific investigations in ways never possible before for any planetary body.
Relatedly, ispace Japan’s first Moon landing mission, carrying several international payloads, launched in December 2022.
Originally published at The Planetary Society in 2022, significantly updated and revised here since then to provide the latest launch and mission information.