NASA is about to farm out the launch of its first moon rover in 48 years to a commercial rocket company

NASA Ames/Daniel RutterAn artist’s rendering of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER.

NASA is about to announce the rocket company that will carry its next rover to the moon – the first such flight since the Apollo program ended in 1972.

It’s the next step in the agency’s plan to pave a new path to space, the moon, and Mars by partnering with commercial providers.

The planned announcement comes less than two weeks after the first commercial launch of astronauts, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent NASA’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit aboard the company’s Crew Dragon spaceship. On May 31, the ship docked to the International Space Station (ISS).

Tony Grey and Tim Powers/NASASpaceX’s Demo-2 mission, launched with a Falcon 9 rocket, lifts off with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside a Crew Dragon spaceship, May 30, 2020.

That historic launch marked the first time that astronauts have flown in a US spacecraft, or launched from US soil, since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. It was the product of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, through which the space agency vetted dozens of companies and emerged with two partners for human spaceflight: SpaceX and Boeing.

Now, the agency is beginning a similar process with its lunar launch program, called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). The $US2.8 billion initiative allows 14 companies to bid on contracts to deliver NASA’s missions to the moon.

NASA plans to announce its first such partnership on Thursday. The immediate goal for the company it reveals is to launch the new moon rover – called the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) – in 2022.

The agency’s long-term aim is to make deep-space exploration cheaper and faster by leaning on privately developed technologies.

14 companies are competing to help NASA build a moon base

Moon colony lunar base illustration concept esaESA/Foster + PartnersAn illustration of an outpost on the moon.

NASA has flown 12 people to the moon, and it has the technology to do it again. But political and budgetary hurdles have kept it from returning for nearly 48 years.

“If it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on a call with reporters last year. “In fact, we would probably be on Mars.”

So the agency has turned to commercial partners – and what astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman has called a “generation of billionaires who are space nuts.” Like the initiative to build spacecraft that can carry astronauts to and from the ISS, public-private partnerships will fuel the Apollo program’s successor, called Artemis.

The new program aims to land robots and astronauts on the lunar surface in the next decade, eventually building a permanent moon base before potentially spring-boarding from there to Mars.

“There’s no question: If we’re going to go farther, especially if we’re going to go farther than the moon, we need new transportation,” Hoffman said during a roundtable last year. “Right now we’re still in the horse-and-buggy days of spaceflight.”

Lunar rover apollo nasaNASAApollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan drives a lunar roving vehicle across the moon on December 11, 1972.

These 14 companies are competing through CLPS for the chance to become NASA’s next mode of transportation to the moon:

If successfully completed, a moon base could evolve into a fuel depot for deep-space missions. Astronauts travelling to Mars would make their jet fuel on the moon by harvesting water ice and breaking it down into oxygen (for breathing) and hydrogen (for fuel).

NASA/Bill IngallsNASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine answers questions at an event announcing nine US companies eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts, November 29, 2018 at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

On a moon base, NASA could also build unprecedented radio telescopes, far from the polluting hum of human activities on Earth. Astronauts there could also test technologies that might help them live on Mars and collect evidence that could paint a better picture of the violent collision that created the moon. A lunar base could even spur an off-world economy, perhaps one built around lunar space tourism.

“A permanent human research station on the moon is the next logical step. It’s only three days away. We can afford to get it wrong and not kill everybody,” Chris Hadfield, a former astronaut, previously told Business Insider. “And we have a whole bunch of stuff we have to invent and then test in order to learn before we can go deeper out.”

The first step towards that vision is sending a rover to the moon’s mysterious south pole, where NASA plans to build its base.

The rover will map water on the moon’s unexplored south pole

Nasa moon rover viperNASA/Johnson Space CentreAn engineering model of VIPER, created to evaluate the rover’s mobility system.

If successful, NASA’s next moon rover will be the first machine to ever land on the moon’s south pole (without deliberately crashing into it, that is).

The golf-cart-size VIPER robot is scheduled to land in December 2022 and spend about 100 days collecting data. It will map the south pole’s water ice for the first time. From that data, NASA plans to build the first global water resource maps of the moon.

Those maps will be crucial to planning and fuelling a permanent base on the moon.

“Since the confirmation of lunar water ice 10 years ago, the question now is if the moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world,” Daniel Andrews, the new mission’s project manger, said in October. “This rover will help us answer the many questions we have about where the water is, and how much there is for us to use.”

You can watch NASA’s announcement below, at 2:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 11.

Dave Mosher contributed reporting.

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