SpaceX's Falcon Heavy to launch NASA's ice-hunting mission to the Moon
A NASA next-generation rover designed to sniff out water and ice at the lunar south pole has just been assigned a ride, with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy given the job of launching it along with a medium-capacity lander to the Moon in 2023. The mission is key for the agency as it seeks to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon under its Artemis program, and will be another important outing for the Falcon Heavy, which has flown only a few times before.
SpaceX's Starship has stolen a lot of the headlines of late, as a larger and more powerful successor to the Falcon Heavy that has been reaching impressive heights in testing. But the Falcon Heavy was the most powerful booster in operation when it completed its first mission in 2018, where it launched CEO Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster into space.
The heavy-lift launch vehicle then completed two commercial missions in 2019, one of which resulted in a triple rocket landing and one which fired 24 satellites into orbit as one of the company's most difficult launches ever. The newly-earned contract from private space company Astrobotic, however, represents the spacecraft's first trip to the Moon.
Last year, NASA awarded Astrobotic with a US$200-million contract to carry its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon's south pole. This rover is fitted with instruments to search for water ice beneath the lunar surface, with a view to unearthing new resources for use by those inhabiting lunar bases under the Artemis program.
Under the agreement, VIPER will be loaded into Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander, which is still under development and will undergo qualification testing later this year. Astrobotic announced today that it has selected the Falcon Heavy to launch the lander, with lift-off expected sometime in late 2023 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“Getting to the Moon isn’t just about building a spacecraft, but having a complete mission solution," says Daniel Gillies, Griffin Mission 1 (GM1) Director for Astrobotic. "SpaceX's Falcon Heavy completes our GM1 solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the Moon. SpaceX has the team, vehicle, and facilities to make this happen."