Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s space business is working on a landing system that could build astronauts on the moon as early as 2024 – but also leaves open the possibility of delivering a ton of cargo to the lunar surface a year ago.
Blue Origin’s chief scientist, Steve Squyres, outlined the current state of plans to deliver an Amazon-like cargo to the moon during a virtual symposium presented by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center.
The idea is not entirely new: Blue Origin introduced its Blue Moon cargo lander concept with the Trump administration in early 2017, before formally taking over as President Donald Trump. And CEO of Blue Origin mentioned the date of 2023 for the landing of cargo more than two years ago during a space conference in the Seattle area.
However, Squyres’ remarks confirmed that the mission to 2023, which would provide an early test of technology for a manned landing system, is still part of Bezos’s great vision of creating a sustainable human presence on the moon. “We have to go back to the moon and stay this time,” Bezos told me in 2018.
There is no indication that NASA placed an order to deliver the cargo, but Squyres said that if approved, the unmanned mission would focus on a location near the site selected for manned landing in 2024.
“NASA speaks of Artemis Base Camp as our initial first support on the lunar surface,” he said. “And this is a chance to start doing it.” This landing module in 2023 can transport up to 1,000 kilograms, a whole metric ton of cargo, to the surface. Some of these costs may be emergency supplies, tools, spare parts, a crew cart that the crew could travel through if NASA is ready in time. “
This could pave the way not only for the landing planned for 2024, but also for subsequent missions. “As a result, we envision delivering larger crews to the lunar surface and delivering cargo to the lunar surface to create a permanent presence,” Squyres said.
Blue Origin is 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 transit station in space. An unmanned crew would not require an output module that Lockheed Martin builds for a manned, capable landing system.
Worth it, SpaceX and Dynetics are also working on lunar landing systems, and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell spoke of sending an unmanned Starship cargo mission to the moon by 2022.
Squyres, who joined Blue Origin last year, is well acquainted with what is required for alien robotic landings. During his time at Cornell University, he served as chief investigator of NASA’s rovers and Opportunity missions to Mars.
Squyres noted today that NASA is working on several robotic probes to test the technology needed for the Artemis moon expeditions. One such probe is the VIPER rover, which should be launched into the southern polar region of the moon by the end of 2022 or 2023. VIPER will assess the prospects for water ice mining, which could be used as a source for lunar operations.
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Squyres said technological demonstrations focused on the extraction and use of lunar water are “a very, very active area of research for NASA and its partners right now.” However, he said more innovation would 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 there is an immediate need for landings and launch pads to ensure safe air traffic at the base where people and infrastructure are,” he said.
Without these pads, rocket landings and launches would probably explode moonstones and soil everywhere, Squyres said.
Lunar soil, also known as regolith, could be used as a building material on the moon, said Shirley Dyke, who heads the Purdue University’s Institute of Resilient Extraterrestrial Habitats. But she said a huge knowledge gap would have to be filled first.
“We don’t have much information about regolith,” Dyke said. “I’d say we know the basic properties and the basic content, but we don’t know what variability is – the range of different possible materials as you walk through different places on the moon.”
Dyke said lunar builders will need to find a replacement for at least one basic component used in Earth-style construction.
“There’s this magical material on Earth called Portland cement,” she said. “And it doesn’t exist on the moon.”