BY MOHAMMAD ADNAAN
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has awarded Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace task orders under existing contracts to advance spacewalking capabilities in low Earth orbit, as well as moonwalking services for Artemis missions.
The latest Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services task orders, each with a value of $5 million, are intended to have Axiom Space begin work on a spacesuit for use in low Earth orbit, and Collins Aerospace to begin work on a spacesuit for use on the lunar surface. Encouraging innovation in the suits and services available from both companies helps NASA further its missions for the benefit of humanity as part of its Moon to Mars exploration approach and obtain potential options should any development issues arise.
“These task orders position NASA for success should additional capabilities become necessary or advantageous to NASA’s missions as the agency paves the way for deep space exploration and commercialization of low Earth orbit,” said Lara Kearney, manager of the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Using this competitive approach we will enhance redundancy, expand future capabilities, and further invest in the space economy.”
Each contract provider has proposed a plan to continue developing their spacesuit to perform in an environment different from that outlined in the scope of their initial task order award. Axiom Space was previously awarded an initial task order to develop a spacewalking system for a demonstration in partial gravity on the lunar surface during Artemis III and will now begin early assessments for extending that suit for use outside the International Space Station. Likewise, Collins Aerospace was previously awarded an initial task order to develop a spacewalking system for a demonstration in microgravity outside the space station and will now begin early assessments for extending that suit for use on the lunar surface.
Both vendors’ assessments will provide NASA insight and redundancy for use of their suit systems despite the differences between low Earth orbit and the lunar surface, including different gravitational fields, natural space environments such as radiation, and mission tasks like floating in microgravity or walking in partial gravity.
The providers will begin their design modification work through an initial milestone set by the awardee in their respective proposals for the task order’s initial content. Following the completion of this initial step, NASA may exercise task order options to continue development. Should NASA decide to pursue the full extent of the follow-on task order options with a given provider culminating in a flight demonstration, the provider must complete all necessary safety and performance verifications before flight and ultimately complete a spacewalk or moonwalk at the respective destination.
The contract enables selected providers to compete for task orders for missions that will provide a full suite of capabilities for NASA’s spacewalking needs during the period of performance through 2034. The first task orders awarded were for the development and services for the first demonstration outside the space station in low Earth orbit and for the Artemis III lunar landing. The contract was designed to evolve with the needs of the agency and space industry and gives NASA a mechanism for adding additional capabilities and vendors as the commercial space services market evolves.
NASA’s investments in these additional capabilities will help bolster a strong commercial space industry. Each provider on the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services contract will own the spacesuits it develops under the contract and can pursue other commercial customers and explore non-NASA commercial applications for the associated technologies.
Expanding the commercial space services market is an important element of NASA’s long-term goals of exploration in low Earth orbit and in deep space, including the Moon and Mars.
As part of NASA’s regular cadence of robotic lunar missions through Artemis, the agency has selected a new scientific payload to establish the age and composition of hilly terrain created by volcanic activity on the near side of the Moon.
The DIMPLE instrument suite, short for Dating an Irregular Mare Patch with a Lunar Explorer, will investigate the Ina Irregular Mare Patch, discovered in 1971 by Apollo 15 orbital images. Learning more about this mound will address outstanding questions about the evolution of the Moon, which in turn can provide clues to the history of the entire solar system.
DIMPLE is the result of the third annual proposal call for PRISM (Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon), which sends science investigations to the Moon through a NASA initiative called CLPS, or Commercial Lunar Payload Services. This PRISM call was the first that allowed proposers to choose and justify a particular landing site for conducting high-priority lunar science investigations.
“This commercial payload delivery initiative is helping to provide a burst of lunar science and exploration,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “DIMPLE will add to a growing body of knowledge about the Moon, which in turn helps us understand the origins of Earth and other planets in the solar system. Additionally, the more we understand about our closest neighbor, the more we can support long-term human exploration at the Moon, and someday, Mars.”
The cost cap for the payload suite is $50 million, and the delivery date is set for no earlier than the second quarter of 2027. NASA expects to work on issuing a CLPS task order in 2024 to determine the launch services to deliver DIMPLE to the Moon.
Such efforts are part of NASA’s larger lunar plans – through Artemis, NASA will explore more of the Moon than ever before with advanced robotics and astronauts.
The Moon is a rich destination for scientific discovery. While some 70 Irregular Mare Patches have been discovered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Ina remains the largest identified so far.
DIMPLE will help determine whether Irregular Mare Patches formed from recent or ancient volcanic processes. The mission will make use of a CLPS-provided rover, a collection gripping instrument, and a spectrometer that can help determine composition of the lunar material to analyze the age and composition of samples collected from the surface of Ina.
DIMPLE will be able to collect and analyze anywhere from three to more than 25 samples to learn more about the timing of the volcanic activity that formed this feature. For example, if the volcanic activity turns out to be geologically recent, it implies that either the lunar mantle was warmer than previously thought, or that radioactive elements contributed to small-scale eruptions continuing later in lunar evolution than previously thought.
Either scenario would help us better understand the geochemical state of the Moon over time. If, on the other hand, the eruptions creating Ina turn out to be older, it would lead to reevaluating the age and evolution of craters on the Moon – which would have implications for understanding the history of Earth and other planets in the solar system.
(The author is a freelance columnist)