NASA kicks off moon rocket hunt after testing new lunar lander vehicles

NASA has a month to find a location that could become home to its first successful unmanned lunar rocket launch since 1972, before the agency must push the window back so it doesn’t miss…

NASA kicks off moon rocket hunt after testing new lunar lander vehicles

NASA has a month to find a location that could become home to its first successful unmanned lunar rocket launch since 1972, before the agency must push the window back so it doesn’t miss a full week in February.

A report Monday on the latest experiments underway at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center spaceport in Florida suggests the soonest launch window for a Centaur lunar rocket to the moon will be in February. The launch window has historically started at Jan. 31 and extended to March 31; the current month is scheduled to close on Feb. 28.

That means NASA officials would have to change their bid once again if they want to bid the window again in February. That means NASA could move the moon rocket launch forward to Feb. 13 or postpone it, this time to March 13.

Each proposed launch of the US Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) Centaur rocket has to be pre-approved by NASA’s Constellation program, which includes the Ares rockets. Currently, there is not enough funding for a launch this spring as the money is already allocated to the advanced exploration systems program, which is running out of money, officials have said.

CLPS, led by the private spaceflight firm Bigelow Aerospace, intends to fly large cargo missions to the moon with private companies between 2016 and 2020. The private missions, known as Blue Moon, will be provided to NASA at no cost as part of the CLPS program.

Following those tests, the Bigelow Aerospace company plans to use them to provide low-cost hotel space in lunar orbit, and it hopes to provide other commercial services in orbit around the moon.

NASA officials have said they hope to launch the payload no later than 2020. But big challenges remain before they could do so.

“The CLPS business case depends on the reusable, expendable launch vehicles being developed for the mission. The launch vehicle has yet to be selected, and the agency has not even finalized whether or not this will be a US or an international contractor,” a NASA statement said.

Astronauts have not landed on the moon since the Apollo mission ended in 1972. The United States has only so far launched small moon probes to the lunar surface and sent a rover to explore the lunar area known as the Apollo 17 site for the first time in 1976.

The CLPS program is the largest private competition to send a rocket to the moon since Blue Origin began work on its Redstone rocket in 2003. Blue Origin has already finished first testing of its reusable spaceplane, New Shepard, and has developed a weather balloon launch system.

Both the US and Russian Federal Space Agency have launched humans to the moon before, but the United States has had only one successful moon mission since the Apollo program, blasting back-to-back Mars rovers in 2008 and 2010.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said he hoped to announce an announcement on the CLPS program in the coming weeks. “Of course, NASA has not confirmed any date, so it is possible the space agency will instead choose to change the date several times in coming months,” the NASA statement said.

Originally published on Space.com.

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