Under the deal, NASA will pay Intuitive Machines $47 million to deliver the space agency's Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment (PRIME-1) to the moon's south pole. It is the first-ever mission designed to harvest water ice from inside the moon, NASA officials said. Moon ice is a resource NASA hopes to exploit under its Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon in 2024.
"The information we’ll gain from PRIME-1 and other science instruments and technology demonstrations we're sending to the lunar surface will inform our Artemis missions with astronauts and help us better understand how we can build a sustainable lunar presence," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science missions, said in an Oct. 16 statement.
Intuitive Machines will fly the 88-lb. (40 kilograms) PRIME-1 payload to the moon in December 2022 on its NOVA-C lander as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. The company is one of several firms NASA has selected under CLPS to fly robotic missions to the moon.
"Laying the foundation to return humans to the moon is an incredible honor and even greater challenge," Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said in a separate statement. "At Intuitive Machines, we're hungry for the pursuit of these audacious missions that will redefine what a small business is capable of."
PRIME-1 will use its drill to dig about 3 feet (1 meter) below the lunar surface to search for buried water ice. The experiment includes a mass spectrometer to measure how much ice from PRIME-1's sample is lost from sublimation, the process in which a solid turns directly into vapor, which happens in space.
"PRIME-1 will give us tremendous insight into the resources at the moon and how to extract them," said Jim Reuter, NASA's associate administrator for space technology, in the NASA statement.
A version of PRIME-1's lunar drill and mass spectrometer will be used on NASA's next robotic moon rover, called VIPER, which is planned to launch in 2023. That mission will also fly to the lunar south pole to search for water ice.
PRIME-1's flight won't be the first moon mission for Intuitive Machines.
Earlier this year, the company announced plans to launch its first Nova-C moon lander in 2021 to a region on the moon known as the "Ocean of Storms." That mission will land in Vallis Schröteri, the largest valley on the moon, and deliver five NASA experiments and some commercial payloads to the lunar surface under a $79.5 million contract with the U.S. space agency.
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