A Firefly Aerospace lander will launch to the moon in 2023 as part of NASA’s Artemis program. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Firefly?” The announcement conjures, at least for us, mental images of this:
Alas, the scrappy little cargo ship from the Joss Whedon TV series Firefly is not the ship they’re sending to the Moon. Instead, we’re getting something that more closely resembles a gold foil embossed janitor’s cart borrowed from Transylvania Polygnostic University:
A janitor’s cart is far less interesting than the truth – that this is an artist’s rendering of the Blue Ghost, a robotic lander being built by Texas-based Firefly Aerospace to deliver 10 scientific experiments and technology demonstrations to the lunar surface in 2023. It will touch down in a lunar mare called Mare Crisium, a low-lying basin on the near side of the moon that measures more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) wide. The lander will carry instruments to study several aspects of the lunar surface in preparation for future human missions to the moon.
The $93.3 million contract awarded to Firefly Aerospace is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which seeks commercial partners to land science and technology payloads on the lunar surface. The Firefly Aerospace contract is the sixth award for lunar surface delivery under CLPS, which is an important part of the agency’s Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration.
“We’re excited another CLPS provider has won its first task order award. With this initiative, we seek to develop ways for new science and technology development utilizing a service-based model,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, said in the statement. “This allows U.S. vendors to not only demonstrate their ability to safely deliver payloads to our celestial neighbor, but also expand this capability for others who want to take advantage of this cutting-edge approach to explore the moon.”
The word 'mare' means 'sea', and comes from the original observations of the moon by astronomers of the 17th century, who drew on language from their own personal experience to describe things, just as we do today. Of course we know now that there were no oceans of water on the moon as they had casually supposed, but they weren't entirely wrong either. The funny thing is that they were not that far wrong: what were assumed to be seas of water had actually been seas of molten basalt, a result of the extreme geological activity on the Moon between 4.3 and 3.5 billion years ago.
Firefly Aerospace will be handling everything from start to finish, including including payload integration, launching from Earth, landing on the moon and mission operations. That payload, packed into the Blue Ghost, will be ten instruments that will investigate various features of the moon, including the regolith that makes up most of the lunar surface , the structure and composition of the moon’s mantle and the heat flow at different depths beneath the lunar surface. Other scientific experiments will measure the precise distance between Earth and the moon, study the interaction of solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field and investigate the impact of solar radiation on the lunar surface.
The Blue Ghost will also carry what’s called the Lunar GNSS Receiver Experiment, which will test the ability to use GPS signals at lunar distances, because why not, we have them in our phones, and wouldn’t it be cool if we could use them in space as well?. Collectively, the 10 research payloads are expected to weigh 207 lbs. (94 kilograms), according to the statement from NASA.
“The payloads we’re sending as part of this delivery service span across multiple areas, from investigating the lunar soil and testing a sample-capture technology, to giving us information about the moon’s thermal properties and magnetic field,” Chris Culbert, manager of the CLPS initiative at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in the statement.
Blue Ghost, named after a rare species of the actual insects we call fireflies, will also be equipped with stereo cameras designed to capture video and still images of the area under the spacecraft, to better understand how the lander’s exhaust disrupts the lunar surface.
Our humorous poke at the lander’s resembling a janitor’s cart actually has a bit of foundation. There’s an instrument in it called the Lunar PlanetVac, which is designed to collect regolith from the lunar surfac- so it’s actually got a little dustbin in it, and it’s going to sweep up a bit of the lunar surface where it will have landed, hopefully to be returned to Earth as part of a separate mission.
Hopefully this Firefly will have a second season.
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