SpaceIL and other international ventures revise lunar lander efforts

Space

WASHINGTON — SpaceIL’s recent decision not to mount a second lunar lander mission is only the latest sign of delays and retrenchment among international ventures planning missions to the moon.

In a June 25 tweet, SpaceIL announced that, contrary to announcements made shortly after the its Beresheet lunar lander crashed attempting a soft landing on the moon April 11, the non-profit organization would not build a second lunar lander.

“This time, we will not go to the moon. Beresheet’s journey to the Moon was already received as a successful, record-breaking journey,” SpaceIL announced. “Instead we will seek out another, significant objective for Beresheet 2.0.”

While SpaceIL promised more information would come about its plans, the venture has yet to release additional details. SpaceIL’s website still mentions its goal of “landing the second Israeli spacecraft on the Moon.

SpaceIL’s announcement comes amid changes by other companies that are — or were — developing lunar landers, efforts stimulated by the former Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP). SpaceIL was one of five finalists for the competition when the $20 million grand prize expired in early 2018.

Another finalist was Team Indus, an Indian team. After the competition ended, Team Indus said it would continue development of a lunar lander, even while shifting its emphasis to being a supplier of lunar lander technology. At a November 2018 conference, Rahul Narayan, founder of Team Indus, said the company was still interested in launching its initial lander while it worked on larger designs.

However, during a presentation at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) last month, Sheelika Ravishankar of Team Indus said the company was no longer planning to launch its own lander. Instead, she said it is focusing on providing technology to other companies.

“We’re not flying missions any more,” she said. “In 2018 we realized we didn’t have the funds to fly the mission on our own. Once GLXP closed down we didn’t have the focus to do that.”

She said Team Indus did look for potential partners to fly a mission independent of the competition. “We looked around to see how we could get this mission to still fly,” she said. “We did not have enough funding, and that was the truth of the matter, which is why we went to look for potential markets.”

Team Indus is working with OrbitBeyond, one of the nine U.S.-based companies that is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. OrbitBeyond, along with Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, received contracts from NASA May 31 for carrying experiments and other payloads to the moon. OrbitBeyond said its Z-01 lander mission will launch in September 2020.

Ravishankar noted that Team Indus is providing “engineering and services” to partners like OrbitBeyond, adding that the company is just one of OrbitBeyond’s several partners. “Team Indus is for the engineering and the consulting,” she said.

The close ties between OrbitBeyond and Team Indus, though, have prompted questions in some circles. NASA requires that CLPS companies manufacture their landers in the United States.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, mentioned those concerns during a June 11 hearing. “While this partnership appears to comply with NASA’s solicitation, the optics, obviously, are not good,” he commented.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in response that all the companies that receive CLPS contracts have to undergo “a full review” of their compliance with requirement that they build their landers in the U.S. “We want to use the very same rules that we’re using for launch vehicles as well, that basically stipulates that the majority of all the manufacturing and design of this particular lander has to be done in the U.S.,” he said.

At the same November 2018 conference where Team Indus said it was still working on its own lunar lander, PTScientists, a German company that also competed in the Google Lunar X Prize, said it was still working on its lander, which it hoped to launch in late 2019 or 2020.

Rolf Erdmann of PTScientists, speaking at the ISDC last month, offered a later schedule. “No earlier than third or fourth quarter of 2021,” he said when asked when PTScientists planned to launch its first mission.

The lander’s design has passed is preliminary design review, but the company is still working to close out issues before proceeding to a critical design review that will freeze the design of the lander. “We still have work ahead, so it is not possible to launch before the end of 2021,” he said.

PTScientists is continuing to add partners to its effort, most recently Amazon Web Services, a partnership he said was announced at Amazon’s re:MARS conference in erly June in Las Vegas. He declined, though, to go into details about what that partnership involved.

Erdmann added that PTScientists was somewhat chastened about setting launch dates based on its experience with the Google Lunar X Prize, which drove it and other teams to meet a series of deadlines that proved infeasible. “GLXP forced you to announce a launch date,” he said. “That’s not a really good idea.”

“We think we were at the top of the line” of Google Lunar X Prize teams, TeamIndus’s Ravishankar said. “Our technology had matured enough. With a little bit of funding we could have flown.”

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