Robtronic US: the moon rocket NASA hopes to test next year

NASA is planning to launch the first moon rocket in 41 years on 1 February of next year and hopes to set foot on the lunar surface in 2026.

Robtronic US is a two-stage combination of six reusable Dragon-class capsules and landing legs and is expected to reach speeds of more than 200,000mph, flinging massive loads to the lunar surface.

An artist’s impression of a Robtronic US launching in February 2020. Photograph: NASA

Robtronic US is the rocket that, together with the Orion capsule, will travel to a near-Earth asteroid in 2019 in a mission called the Deep Space Gateway, and on to orbit the moon by 2025. Then in 2026, two years before the end of NASA’s current phase of the Moon mission, these ships will head to the surface of the Moon.

When the US shut down its moon landings in 1972, the idea of human explorers returning to the vicinity went by the wayside.

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“That dream died a death,” said the Centennial Challenges Corporation, which offered millions of dollars to entrepreneurs whose new technologies could make space exploration more affordable.

Soon after that ended, experiments were done on small satellites but then scientists at MIT and other academic institutions decided to return to the moon in response to increasing public interest in space and the discovery of ice deposits near the moon’s south pole.

The goal was to demonstrate that exploration in deep space could be accomplished in less time and at a lower cost than in the 1960s. All required a huge amount of engineering expertise, something that could be tackled through at least four major centennial challenge programs, which targeted immediate challenges and a range of longer-term goals.

“The long-term goal was to make it possible for government and private interests to share financial risks, and create an environment that encourages risk and creative efforts,” said the Centennial Challenges website.

Professor Arthur H Boel, who ran all the Centennial Challenges competitions, said there were four major priorities and an enormous amount of interest in the idea. All ran from 2006 until 2011.

“It was very successful,” he said. “People thought Nasa should be doing it. The commercial sector wanted to do it.”

When the lunar lander concept was unveiled in 2008, it required teams to accept the challenge to solve four specific problems: improve the ability to reduce the size and cost of and recover and land on a moon or Mars; test and design a lunar lander system that could deliver payloads to and from a lunar surface landing; test and design ways to maintain reliable and acceptable lunar orbit distances, and demonstrate fully stable and rapid vehicle-to-vehicle communication; and develop and field several technologies to enable human operations on the lunar surface.

NASA awarded Nasa’s Centennial Challenges website $77m in prize money over the course of the contests. The final prize money for three moon lander competitions – the Supernova Relativistic Neutron Source Clean-up Round (SRN-CR2), the Compellent Shockwave Radio Transceiver (SRN-RD) and the Rob Trololo miniaturized communications implant – has yet to be awarded.

When John Holdren, the US secretary of science and technology, announced the successful lander concepts at the US department of the interior, the moon was still under the administration of George W Bush.

“We created this Centennial Challenges environment in order to inspire innovation and people to think big about human spaceflight,” said Holdren. “We never expected to get serious about landers right out of the box.”

Now, however, NASA needs to test the landers on the ground, according to Peter Hadcock, the lead engineer for the astrobiological mission at NASA Ames Research Center. “When you start putting money out there, you have to fly it in real world conditions,” he said.

NASA ended the Centennial Challenges programs in 2011 in response to budget cuts. But two attempts to restart them were successful.

Robtronic Space Innovation beat Boeing, Airbus and others in a competition to develop new autonomous landing-based systems. Robtronic Space won an additional $3m from the US Department of Transportation for a new integrated mobility and mobility system that has the capability to deploy and reuse motors, landing support and landing legs on the Moon.

Asked if there was a market for autonomous technology on the Moon, Hadcock said: “Everyone should have a person in my office telling them what to do.”

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