Laurel, Md. — A SpaceX Starship that will land on the moon and conduct an uncrewed test flight may just be a “skeletal” version of a crewed Artemis 3 mission, NASA said.
In a presentation at NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) annual meeting on Aug. 23, Human Landing System (HLS) program manager Lisa Watson-Morgan said that a Starship on an uncrewed landing demonstration mission would not have to The same vehicle that will be used on Artemis 3 to transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface as early as 2025.
“For unmanned demonstrations, the goal is to land safely,” she said. “The uncrewed demo doesn’t have to be the same starship you see in the manned demo. It’s going to be a skeleton because it just needs to land. It doesn’t have to back up.”
“Obviously we want it to take off,” she added, referring to takeoff, “but the requirement is for it to land.”
The unmanned landing, planned by 2024, is a key test ahead of the manned Artemis 3 mission. Watson-Morgan said the uncrewed landing will take place on the moon’s south pole, but no decisions have been made on where it will land, including whether it will be one of 13 areas NASA announced on Aug. 19. Artemis 3 quest. One factor in choosing the landing site, she said, was to “protect future science” by not destroying any Artemis 3 landing sites.
There will be an opportunity to conduct scientific research on an unmanned demonstration landing. That includes flying a suite of sensors and imagers, “and possibly a payload,” she said, without specifying the type of sensors or payloads that could be flown. The types of payloads that NASA is interested in flying include those that “do not require extensive maintenance.”
However, she and others say they want to maximize the performance that Starship offers on a lunar landing, with the potential to carry large payloads. NASA’s HLS ground chief, Logan Kennedy, said that while the original HLS competition called for all but two astronauts to carry only 100 kilograms of cargo to the ground and back, later “sustained” missions will increase to 182 Kilogram. 160kg on the water and back, with a goal of 1000kg up and down.
“We’re going to use everything we can in this mission, using the scale of their system, to try to move up and down as much as possible,” Watson-Morgan said.
So far, SpaceX has been an “excellent partner” with HLS, she said, and the company has worked closely with the agency. SpaceX participated in the Artemis 3 landing site selection process to ensure potential landing zones were compatible with Starship. In turn, NASA has given personnel, including astronauts, access to SpaceX’s facilities for review and hardware testing.
This includes one of Starship’s unique attributes, the elevator needed to get from the crew cabin to the ground. “It’s a very tall lander. It doesn’t look like conventional landers we’ve seen in the past, so it’s hard to reconcile that psychologically,” Watson-Morgan said.
She assured scientists at the meeting that the elevator’s design was robust, saying it was “multiple fault tolerant” and designed to operate in lunar conditions. During his presentation, Kennedy showed images of a full-scale mockup of the elevator SpaceX built for the “crew-in-the-loop” test, which included astronauts wearing mock space suits to test the ability to get in and out of the elevator.
Still, some aspects of the entire Starship lunar architecture remain unclear. The lander’s operational concept involves SpaceX launching a Starship into low-Earth orbit, which will serve as a fuel depot, and subsequent launches of the Starship serving as tankers to fill that fuel depot. The lunar lander Starship will then launch, fill its depot with fuel tanks, and head to lunar orbit.
Neither NASA nor SpaceX have said exactly how many launches a Starship mission to the moon will require, though, a point of contention at Blue Origin’s protest against the SpaceX HLS award last year. “How much? But it takes a lot. That’s how many we’re going to launch,” Watson-Morgan said.
Once the astronauts return to Orion, NASA’s requirements for the HLS mission are over. “We’re not going to tell them to do anything with it,” Kennedy said of the fate of the Starship lander after the astronauts returned from the lunar surface. “It’s going to be up to SpaceX.”