Team Indus partner OrbitBeyond drops out of NASA contract for 2020 moon lander mission

The 2 other contracts for lunar landers, with Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are slated to launch in 2021.


NASA has canceled a commercial contract with American space company OrbitBeyond to build a robotic Moon lander in 2020, just two months after the partnership was announced. The agreement between NASA and OrbitBeyond was to send science instruments to the lunar surface as soon as next year, in preparation for NASA's Artemis mission to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

OrbitBeyond sent NASA a notice citing that it had "internal corporate challenges" preventing them from completing the task order that was initially agreed upon, according to a NASA-issued statement.

Team Indus partner OrbitBeyond drops out of NASA contract for 2020 moon lander mission

Artist’s concept of a future moon landing carried out under NASA's newly named Artemis program. Image: NASA

While the original contract between NASA and OrbitBeyond to carry out an unmanned lunar landing in September 2020 is now void, NASA clarified that OrbitBeyond will stay a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS)-contract-awardee, eligible to compete in future opportunities under the program. Contracts worth a combined total of $253.5 million (INR 17.5 billion) were awarded to three different space companies — OrbitBeyond, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, on 31 May.

OrbitBeyond made news in India on June 2019, when it hired Bengaluru-based space firm TeamIndus to design and engineer their lunar lander — the first American lunar lander of the 21st century. OrbitBeyond's Z-01 lander is modelled on a lunar lander design by TeamIndus, when it gave the Google Lunar XPrize a shot between 2007 and 2018. Being an Indian company, TeamIndus isn't eligible to compete for CLPS contracts in the same way they are open to US companies, so the partnership with Orbit Beyond is their ticket to the moon for now.

NASA Artemis mission gameplan sketch. Image courtesy: Art Technica

NASA Artemis mission gameplan sketch. Image courtesy: Art Technica

The CLPS program

Under NASA's CLPS program, contracts were designed to allow the agency quick access to the Moon with instruments delivered by its commercial partners. Since the project was launched, nine companies were picked — deemed "eligible" — to make bids for specific task orders that were dictated by NASA's own priorities for missions to the Moon and Mars. The CLPS program is also a test of contracting and readiness of the commercial space industry to take a larger role in lunar exploration, according to the statement.

Under the CLPS contract, all the chosen companies were to fly scientific payloads to the moon ahead of NASA's Artemis mission. These test flights were planned on three different commercial lunar missions in 2020 and 2021. At that time the agreement was signed, OrbitBeyond claimed it could manage an unmanned lunar landing with four NASA payloads to the lunar surface in September 2020. Even the region for its targeting touchdown was finalised — in the Mare Imbrium region, a lava plain on the Moon's near side.

Artemis on the Moon. Image credit: NASA

Artemis on the Moon. Image credit: NASA

The two remaining contracts in the first round of lunar landers, with Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are getting are slated to launch in the summer of 2021. Both of these missions are still on track, according to NASA's statement.

"We know that CLPS missions are going to be challenging for various reasons, and they may not always succeed," Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in the statement.

"We’re willing to accept some risk in order to get back to the Moon quickly, with commercial partners, and do exciting science and technology development with broad applications."

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