WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Cheaper access to space is leading to a new race to explore it and commercialise it in new ways.
Amazon is already king of retail. They’re also rapidly becoming the kings of logistics here on Earth. But since 2017 Jeff Bezos, their founder and CEO, and the world’s richest man, has nonetheless also been eyeing being the king of deliveries to the Moon too, as well as one day moving all heavy industry off of Earth. Now, a couple of years on from his original announcement Bezos’ Blue Origin space outfit have announced they’re working on a landing system that could put astronauts on the Moon as early as 2024 and that they’re keeping their options open to deliver a ton of cargo to the lunar surface a year before that.
Blue Origin’s chief scientist, Steve Squyres, outlined the plans for an Amazon-like cargo delivery to the Moon during a virtual symposium at the University of Washington.
Big plans for a small Moon
The idea isn’t exactly new. Blue Origin floated its Blue Moon cargo lander concept with the Trump administration in early 2017, even before President Donald Trump formally took office. And a Blue Origin executive again mentioned the 2023 date for a cargo landing more than two years ago during a Seattle space conference.
But Squyres’ remarks served to confirm that the 2023 mission, which would provide an early test of the technology for the crewed landing system, is still part of Bezos’ grand vision for creating a sustainable human presence on the Moon as well as his vision for giant human space colonies.
“We must go back to the Moon, and this time to stay,” said Bezos in 2018. And he’s not just saying that because the Moon would be a great tax exile for him and his friends …
So far there’s no indication that NASA has put in its order for a cargo delivery yet, but Squyres said that if the go-ahead is eventually given, the uncrewed mission would target a spot not far away from the site selected for the 2024 crewed landing.
“NASA talks about Artemis base camp as being sort of our initial first foothold on the lunar surface,” he said. “And this is the chance to start doing this. This lander in 2023 can deliver up to 1,000 kilograms, an entire metric ton of cargo, onto the surface. Some of that cargo can be emergency supplies, tools, spare parts, a rover for the crew to drive around in if NASA has it ready in time.”
That could set the stage not only for the landing planned in 2024, but for follow-up missions as well.
“Downstream from this, we envision delivering larger crews to the lunar surface, delivering cargo to the lunar surface to build up that permanent presence,” Squyres said.
Blue Origin is currently working with industry partners — including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to develop a system that could land astronauts on the Moon and bring them back from the lunar surface to their way station in space. The uncrewed cargo lander wouldn’t require the ascent module that Lockheed Martin is building for the crew-capable landing system.
Squyres, who joined Blue Origin last year, is well-acquainted with what’s required for off-Earth robotic landings. During his time at Cornell University, he served as the principal investigator for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rover missions to Mars.
At the conference Squyres noted that NASA is working on several robotic probes to test the technologies required for Artemis moon expeditions. One such probe is the VIPER rover, which is due for launch to the moon’s south polar region in late 2022 or 2023. VIPER will assess the prospects for extracting water ice that could be used as a resource for lunar operations.
Squyres said technology demonstrations targeting the extraction and use of lunar water are a “very, very active area of research right now” for NASA and its partners. But he said more innovations will be needed to support a sustainable human presence on the Moon.
“When you talk about what you’re going to build on the lunar surface, I think that the most immediate need is for landing and launch pads that will make flight operations safe at a base where there are people and infrastructure in place,” he said.
“Without such pads, rocket-powered touchdowns and takeoffs were likely to blast lunar rocks and soil all over the place,” he added.
Lunar soil, also known as regolith, could be used as a building material on the Moon, said Shirley Dyke, who heads Purdue University’s Resilient Extra-Terrestrial Habitats Institute. But she said a huge knowledge gap would have to be filled first.
“We don’t have that much information about the regolith,” Dyke said. “We know basic properties and basic contents, I should say, but what we do not know is the variability — the range of different possible materials as you go around different locations on the moon.”
Dyke said lunar builders will have to find a substitute for at least one basic ingredient used in Earth-style construction.
“There’s this magical material here on Earth called Portland cement,” she said. “And that does not exist on the Moon.” Yet …