NASA pulls the plug of its only planned robotic mission onto the lunar surface. The space agency reportedly canceled its Resource Prospector – a small rover that removes materials such as hydrogen, oxygen, and water from the lunar poles. The move has upset many lunar scientists, and now they're calling on NASA's new administrator to keep the program alive, claiming it's a crucial mission to bring people back to the moon.
The main goal of Resource Prospector was to help NASA better understand what materials lurk at the poles of the moon. Several lunar spaceships have proven that water exists there in the form of ice, but we do not know much about how this ice is. Most of the data comes from the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is in orbit around the Moon, and from some spaceships that have deliberately crashed into the moon for rapid measurements of surface composition. The Resource Prospector would study this water ice close up over a longer period of time and learn more about its consistency and how much of it is out there.
This vital information could dramatically change the planning of future lunar missions. Scientists have proposed the idea of breaking down the water ice at the poles to convert it into drinking water or rocket fuel. But we will not know if we even have access to this valuable resource unless we send a robot there to investigate the area first, and now NASA has broken its fastest route to find out. "There are no other [NASA] missions planned to go to the surface of the Moon," says Phil Metzger, a planet physicist at the University of Central Florida who is part of the Resource Prospector Science Team The Verge [1
The Verge twice wrote an e-mail to NASA requesting that the mission be canceled, but received no official response in time for publication. We will update this post when we hear it.
The cancellation seems to be in conflict with the plans of the current administration for NASA. In November, President Donald Trump instructed the space agency to bring people back to the Moon as part of the Space Policy 1 policy. Therefore, a group of scientists from the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), which advises NASA on moon research, wrote to NASA's recently sworn administrator, Jim Briddenstine, urging him to revoke the decision on Resource Prospector. "We wanted to alert him so that he could investigate why the Space Policy Guidelines 1 are being ignored," says Clive Neal, Professor of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame and LEAG Emeritus Chair, The Verge
The Resource Prospector consists of two main components: a lunar lander and a rover with a drill that would roam the surface of the moon to dig up materials for analysis. The mission was not fully funded, but NASA has been working on it for four years. Engineers have perfected the designs for the hardware and figured out what kind of instruments they want to use. They even tested a prototype rover here on Earth in 2015 and 2016.
The concept was ready to undergo a major design review by the end of the year, with the goal of launching in 2022, according to Neal. "It's far enough that it's a real mission," he says. But on April 23, NASA told the Resource Prospector team that it would stop all operations by the end of May, the LEAG letter said.
Butcher, who confirmed the cancellation of The Verge speculated that the problems started when the mission was relocated to another principal within NASA. Originally, Resource Prospector was funded with money earmarked for human exploration. Then it was transferred to the directorate, which instead funds science missions. But Resource Prospector does not do any direct science; it does economics, says Butcher. Although it is a robotic mission, it does not quite fit into the priorities or budget of the Science Directorate, which is why it was probably canceled.
Butcher can only speculate why the mission has been postponed. "I do not really know what the motive is, but I guess it was probably budget-related," he says. NASA's human exploration program is currently working on a massive new rocket, the Space Launch System, which accounts for a significant portion of the annual human exploration budget. It is also behind schedule, so it is possible Resource Prospector has been moved to the Science Directorate to release funds to prevent further delays.
The mission should have remained within man's exploration program all the time, Metzger says. Resource Prospector would eventually tell what NASA astronauts will do on the Moon when they arrive there. Astronauts will spend a lot of time studying the geology of the region, as well as developing new technologies to use the resources of the moon, such as the ice storage.
These deposits can be used in many different ways. Water can be decomposed and turned into rocket fuel, which could then be used to launch spaceships to and from the lunar surface. That way, NASA would not have to take all its fuel off the planet for a moon mission that can be both heavy and costly. There is also evidence that carbon is lurking in this water ice. This could be used to produce plastics to shield habitats from radiation. "If we can prove that we have access to water on the moon, we can start designing the equipment that will mine it and deliver it to the outpost," says Metzger.
And Resource Prospector could help spur a vibrant moon economy. Numerous private space companies are interested in promoting the moon for water and minerals. And if the industry is able to produce enough fuel with this water, they could fill several "space depots" – which could be used to fuel spacecraft in orbit around Earth and Moon. Such depots could help reduce the cost of sending satellites into space, and even make their way to Mars more affordable. A Mars rocket could fill up in one of these depots before embarking on the long journey to the Red Planet.
Of course, it could turn out that the water is not easily accessible at all, and that could change many plans within the industry. "At the moment, we do not know if these business cases will close," says Neal. Anyway, Resource Prospector would tell us a lot about what lurks on the moon and it seems to fit what the current government wants. After the election, Trump's NASA Transitional Team asked the space agency about its plans to dig up the moon, and NASA called the Resource Prospector an motherboard an important mission to that end. And administrator Bridenstine tweeted yesterday that he was looking forward to the return to the moon starting with "an aggressive robot program". But without Resource Prospector, NASA has no elaborate program to send robots to the Moon surface. The space agency plans to start financing small and medium-sized countries in the near future, but no robotic surface mission is as far-reaching as Resource Prospector.
The Trump administration has also said that it intends to strengthen NASA's partnership with the commercial space industry. Resource Prospector did just that: it would help inform companies that want to mine the moon, and NASA planned to use a commercial lander to bring the rover to the lunar surface, Metzger claims.
Canceling Resource Prospector means starting from scratch when it comes to sending astronauts back to the moon. "People have been talking about it, how can we make lunar missions as fast as possible, well, that's the only mission we've developed to go to the moon," says Metzger. "It really is a super important mission and I can not imagine anything more important than doing it on the moon."