Moon landing has been the exclusive domain of national space agencies. Whatever private attempts have been made in recent years have fallen short, including one this month.
However, 2024 is likely to be the year that changes things.
Let's start with the most recent project, which, even if unsuccessful, has greatly increased the chances of successive private launches making a successful landing on the moon.
Astrobotic’s Peregrine spacecraft lifted for the Moon on 8 January with the goal of accomplishing a lunar landing on 23 February and delivering 20 payloads from seven nations and 16 commercial customers.
The lunar logistics company had its eyes set on becoming the first commercial lander, and first American lander in over 50 years, to set foot on the Moon, in the Gruithuisen Domes region.
Moreover, it was the first launch under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The CLPS is a vehicle for the United States (US) space agency to outsource some of its lunar exploration work in order to bring down mission costs and focus more on bigger goals, like returning astronauts to the Moon and sustaining a lunar outpost.
Naturally, NASA put instruments aboard Peregrine Mission One in preparation for their Artemis programme, whose aim is to establish and sustain human presence on the Moon through successive lunar missions over a couple of decades’ time.
The Peregrine launch went well. The United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, making its first-ever flight, injected the spacecraft into the intended orbit. However, a propulsion anomaly detected shortly after launch dampened the mood. Because of the issue, Astrobotic would be unable to land its Peregrine spacecraft on the Moon.
Alas! That’s three on three for failed attempts by private companies to land on the Moon — a 100 per cent failure record. The mighty lunar endeavour had previously claimed the Israeli Beresheet lander in 2019 and the Japanese Hakuto-R lander in 2023.
While the Peregrine failure might sink hearts, especially of those rooting for private lunar exploration, 2024 might still see private lander legs touch down on the Moon for the first time ever — even Astrobotic still has a shot.
Not Quite To Moon And Back
Peregrine spent about 11 days in space before likely going to sleep in Earth’s air. (A confirmation is awaited.) The anomaly that would seal its fate, though, was detected on day one of launch.
Astrobotic was firstly unable to achieve a stable Sun-pointing orientation for its craft. The team desperately improvised a move to reorient the solar panels toward the Sun. The move worked and the battery began to be charged.
The source of the anomaly, meanwhile, was identified as a failure within the propulsion system. It was causing a critical loss of propellant.
Foreseeing Peregrine’s inability to land on the Moon due to the propellant leak, Astrobotic decided to quickly perform as many payload and spacecraft operations as possible, while covering as much of the lunar distance of roughly 384,000 kilometres (km) as possible.
The company worked single-mindedly to extend Peregrine’s operational life — so that sufficient data could be collected and spaceflight operations validated, the latter mostly in service of Astrobotic’s Moon mission, Griffin.
The spacecraft did cover the lunar distance, with the Moon elsewhere in orbit at the time (12 January). It then turned back towards Earth for an eventual burn-up during re-entry in the planet’s atmosphere.
This manner of end for the spacecraft was adjudged as “the most safe and responsible course of action” after talks with the space community and the US government. The goal was to prevent creation of space debris.
“This mission has already taught us so much and has given me great confidence that our next mission to the Moon will achieve a soft landing,” said Astrobotic chief executive, John Thornton.
Astrobotic’s Second Shot In 2024
Thornton is referring to Griffin Mission One, the Pittsburgh-based company’s second lunar lander mission. It is set for launch later this year.
Griffin will be the largest lunar lander since the US Apollo lunar module. Capable of carrying rovers and other large payloads, the medium-class lander will be able to land precisely in even rugged and hazardous terrain, according to the company.
Griffin, also part of the CLPS initiative, will take off on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). It will target the south pole region of the Moon for landing, where Chandrayaan-3 made a historic touchdown in August 2023. (Peregrine, in contrast, was targeting a mid-latitude touchdown.)
Upon arrival near the Nobile crater, VIPER will search for the presence of water ice in the permanently shadowed regions of Mons Mouton.
Thus, from Peregrine Mission One to Griffin Mission One, Astrobotic will have less than a year’s time to learn from data and experience, make amends, and come back around later this year for a lunar landing.
Though, it is possible that by then a private company would have landed a lunar vehicle on the Moon.
Intuitive Moon Launch In February
Houston-based space exploration company Intuitive Machines will try to make history next month by deploying the first commercial lunar lander and the first US spacecraft to land on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.
The IM-1 mission will feature the Nova-C lander, called Odysseus, and will look to deliver commercial and NASA payloads that will pave the way for sustainable human lunar exploration — as is the objective of these CLPS missions.
Targeted to land near the south pole of the Moon, the IM-1 will launch aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in mid-February. If it is able to land successfully, Nova-C will operate in the Malapert A crater for nearly two weeks.
The International Lunar Observatory ILO-X will fly on Nova-C with the goal of taking some of the first images of the Milky Way galaxy from the Moon's surface. The ILO-X is a precursor to a flagship lunar south pole observatory, ILO-1.
NASA payloads on Nova-C will study how rocket exhaust interacts with the lunar surface during landing, among other things.
Though more than a month separates the planned launches of Intuitive and Astrobotic, Intuitive’s lander was anyway in pole position to attempt a landing. Launching in February, the IM-1 has a six-and-a-half-day journey to the Moon, while Peregrine, though taking a similar journey time, was set to take more than a month to land for want of ideal lighting conditions.
If all goes to plan, Intuitive’s IM-1 will only be the first of three CLPS-linked lunar landing missions to be executed this year.
Other Moon Missions In 2024
Just as Astrobotic has one more launch up its sleeve, Intuitive Machines is set for two more launches to the Moon this year.
The IM-2 mission will feature the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment 1 (PRIME-1), whose objective is to land a drill and mass spectrometer near the lunar south pole. The Nova-C lander will touch down at the Shackleton connecting ridge, near Shackleton Crater. Drilling operations will begin thereafter.
The mission seeks to demonstrate the feasibility of in-situ resource utilisation and measure the volatile content of subsurface samples, as per NASA.
PRIME-1 will help scientists search for water at the lunar south pole. The Lunar Trailblazer mission will be a secondary spacecraft on the IM-2 mission, which will also be launched by Falcon 9.
Interestingly, Nokia will test out its 4G/LTE communications network on the Moon through IM-2.
“This demonstration could pave the way for a commercial 4G/LTE system for mission-critical communications on the lunar surface. This includes communications and even high-definition video streaming from astronauts to base stations, vehicles to base stations, and more,” a NASA post says.
Intuitive will also deploy a hopper robot called Micro-Nova. The robotic craft will hop into a nearby crater, collect pictures and science data, hop out back, and send the collected data back to Nova-C.
Intuitive’s third CLPS mission, IM-3, will see a visit and payload delivery to the near side of the Moon, specifically to Reiner Gamma, a lunar swirl. “Observing lunar swirls can give us information about the Moon’s radiation environment and perhaps how to mitigate its effects,” says NASA, which is deploying a lunar vertex payload for the purpose.
Other lunar investigations using IM-3 include — mobile robots teaming up to explore the lunar surface, gather data, and map different areas of the Moon in 3D; a laser retroreflector from Europe helping probe relativity, the gravitational dynamics of the Earth-Moon system, and the deep lunar interior; and a space environment monitor from South Korea detecting high-energy particles on the lunar surface.
The IM-3 launch is set to follow “a few months” after IM-2.
Besides Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, Texas-based Firefly Aerospace will launch to the Moon in 2024.
Their Blue Ghost Mission 1 will deliver 10 NASA payloads as part of the CLPS initiative, among others, near a volcanic feature called Mons Latreille within a large basin on the Moon’s near side called Mare Crisium.
“This unique landing site will allow our payload partners to gather critical data about the Moon’s regolith, geophysical characteristics, and the interaction of solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field. These investigations will help prepare for human missions to the lunar surface,” Firefly says on its website. The company plans to fly annual Blue Ghost missions to the Moon.
More such missions are in the launch queue over the next couple of years, paving the way for the now-delayed Artemis missions, including returning American astronauts back to the Moon in 2026. As many as 16 scientific experiments and technology demonstrations have been finalised by NASA for delivery to the Moon under the US programme.
NASA is looking at two CLPS missions each year on average for the purpose, but the inaugural year 2024 appears bountiful and might unlock the door to a new era of private, commercial lunar missions.
In the near-term, however, slotted in between the various private Moon landing attempts is one by Japan’s government space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
This attempt will take place on 20 January, with JAXA attempting a precise, “pinpoint” landing of its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) near the Shioli crater on the Moon’s near side.
Maybe third time’s a charm for Japan, which was previously unsuccessful in landing the Omatenashi lander in 2022 and the private Hakuto-R lander in 2023.
If SLIM lands, Japan will make history by becoming only the fifth country, after the former Soviet Union, US, China, and India, to accomplish a controlled landing on the Moon.
It will also have implications for a future India-Japan collaborative Moon mission called LUPEX, short for Lunar Polar Exploration Mission.
Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!