NASA will return to land on the Moon, maybe as soon as next year.
However, the agency will not send people. It will be at least five more years before the astronauts walk on the moon again.
But on Friday, NASA will announce the first contracts to send small experiments and technology packages there aboard a robotic spacecraft.
Although not as exciting as a human mission, these landers would be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo 17 astronauts left in 1972.
What will NASA announce?
In November, NASA announced that it had selected nine companies to compete for up to $ 2.6 billion over the next decade for bringing the payload to the moon, part of a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services. These could be small experiments like retroreflectors, essentially fantasy mirrors that reflect the light in the direction they come from, which would allow accurate measurements of the moon's gravity.
How does it relate to the goal of sending astronauts to the moon in 2024?
These spaceships would be small, too small for astronauts, or even to carry supplies to the surface. (Probably they will be similar in size to Beresheet, the lunar vehicle built by an Israeli non-profit organization that tried to land earlier this year but crashed).
However, these spacecraft could study the possible landing sites for human missions. The next astronaut missions are to land near the lunar South Pole, where there is ice frozen in the eternal shadows of some craters.
Ice would not only be a source of water, it could also be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. Both could provide propellant for rocket engines, and oxygen would also provide air for astronauts to breathe.
No one knows how difficult it will be to extract useful material from ice; It could be mixed with earth and rocks.
The missions could also deliver prototypes of future telescopes and other scientific instruments.
Who is competing?
The companies, a mix of established NASA contractors and space companies, were:
Pittsburgh Astrobotic Technology;
Deep Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado;
Draper of Cambridge, Mbadachusetts;
Firefly Aerospace from Cedar Park, Tex .;
Houston Intuitive Machines;
Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo .;
Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California;
Moon Express from Cape Canaveral, Fla .;
Orbit beyond Edison, N.J.
Is there really money to be made on the moon?
Unlike the programs prior to the Moon, which have been designed and operated by NASA, the space agency wants to adopt a low-cost, high-risk approach.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the badociate administrator of the NASA Directorate of Science, uses a hockey badogy: NASA wants to shoot the target many times, without expecting everyone to score.
Some, perhaps most, of these companies will probably fail. But the hope is that the effort will launch a new industry, essentially a FedEx or U.P.S. To the moon, just as SpaceX was put into the business of transporting supplies to the International Space Station at a lower cost and was able to use the same rocket for commercial satellite launches.
Eventually, successful companies could offer services not only to NASA but also to to Companies also want to settle on the moon.
What is unknown is how skilled these companies are and how good the porter is that the Moon has to block spaceships.