NASA‘s key motive has always been to establish a strong presence on the moon; however, this is possible when they perform a lot of landings. Performing these landings while abating the cost will be akin to a cherry on top.
How are they going to do that?
Researchers have come up with a concept that could make the landings reliable and cheap at the same time. The concept doesn’t have a formal name but for now, they are calling it “Pallet Lander”. Using this concept the tedious job of putting payloads up to 300 kilograms will become much simple.
Explained in a published paper today, the pallet is going to be a strong framework that will aid in many future missions. The idea is an evolution of a concept that emerged during VIPER MISSION, which was intended to minimize cost and risk while landing.
The paper’s introduction reads:
The design of the Lander was based on a minimum set of level 1 requirement where traditional risk, mass, and performance trade parameters were weighed lower than cost. In other words, the team did not sacrifice ‘good enough’ for ‘better’ or ‘best.’
This implies increasing five percent tensile strength from a material that would cost 50 times more wasn’t considered a great trade-off. Bearing this in mind, they are not using ebony or elm for regular pallets. Instead, they are using a space travel equivalent to pine boards that have been thoroughly tested. NASA’s team hypothesizes a little but emphasize on following a more realistic approach.
The space pallet would use a commercial launch vehicle, such as a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket to go up aboard. The vehicle would help the pallet and its rover payload from getting into a trans-lunar injection trajectory. Necessary maneuvers would be performed by the space pallet to execute proper landing: landing site selection, altitude control, braking, and a soft touchdown with the rover’s solar panels facing the sun, a few days later.
Once the rover has touched down, it would merry its way for about two hours at some nearby spots, while doing so it will take some surface images and characterize the surroundings for the team on the Earth. After doing all this, it will shut down for the next eight hours.
A major set back
Unfortunately, the space pallet will not survive the lunar night, the researchers pointed out. Though any existence on the moon’s surface is an asset, it’s costly to provide the kind of heating and power infrastructure that would make the Lander survive in the freezing, airless chills of the Moon’s weeks-long night.
Nonetheless, the team can equip the Lander with some self-sustaining, low-key science experiments or hardware that could be of use to others later — for example a passive beacon for navigation, or an intermittent seismic sensor that detect nearby meteorite impacts.
“As robotic lunar Landers grow to accommodate larger payloads, simple but high-performing Landers with a contiguous payload volume will be needed,” Logan Kennedy (project’s lead systems engineer) said. “This concept was developed by a diverse team of people over many years and meets that need.
“We hope that other Lander designers can benefit from our work,” he added.