Jeff Bezos shows off new lunar lander design for NASA – Ars Technica

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos meets with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson with a mock-up of the Blue Moon Mark 1 lander behind them.

Zoom in / Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos meets with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson with a mock-up of the Blue Moon Mark 1 lander behind them.

Blue Origin has unveiled a mock-up of the Blue Moon lander, which it says will be ready to fly to the moon within the next three years, in preparation for a human landing on a larger vehicle, perhaps at the end of the decade.

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Blue Origin, recently showed off a “low-resolution” model to NASA officials at the company’s engine production facility in Huntsville, Alabama. The vehicle is undoubtedly large and will benefit from the 23-foot-wide (7-meter) payload volume on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.

This is the Mark 1 model of the Blue Moon lander. It is designed to deliver up to 3 metric tons (about 6,600 pounds) of cargo anywhere on the moon’s surface. Blue Origin revealed the design on Friday.

“The Blue Moon Mark 1 is a single-launch, stay-on-the-surface lunar lander that provides safe, reliable, and affordable access to the lunar environment,” Blue Origin wrote on its website. The company is developing the Mark 1 as a predecessor to the larger Mark 2 lander, which will transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface under a contract with NASA, which selected Blue Origin as its second contractor for the lunar lander in May, along with SpaceX. .

“We are building our own landers, the Mark 1 and Mark 2, to enable global landing capability on the Moon, day or night,” said John Coulouris, senior vice president of lunar transportation at Blue Origin.

Scheduling uncertainty

NASA’s first landing target for the Artemis rover is the moon’s south pole, where scientists have discovered evidence of large deposits of water ice at the bottoms of dark craters. There is a lot of work to be done before that happens.

Through a $3.4 billion firm-fixed-price Human Landing System (HLS) contract with NASA, Blue Origin will be responsible for transporting astronauts between lunar orbit and the lunar surface, and then back into space, on the Artemis V mission. That mission is officially scheduled to take place No later than 2029, but likely extending into the 2030s.

NASA has contracted with SpaceX to land two crews on the moon with its giant Starship vehicle on the Artemis III and Artemis IV missions, officially scheduled for late 2025 and 2028. Those missions are also likely to be delayed, with schedule pressures ranging from satellite readiness. Landers and spacesuits to build a new mobile launch pad and expanded upper stage for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.

SpaceX’s priority right now is to send the Starship rocket into orbit, after which the company needs to test its in-space refueling technology, a capability that will require many successful Starship launches. SpaceX then plans to launch an unmanned test mission to land the spacecraft on the moon, before the first crew flight.

It’s not just SpaceX’s readiness that has NASA concerned about the Artemis III timeline.

“We have a whole bunch of components that need to come together for (Artemis) III,” said Jim Frye, NASA’s senior administrator overseeing the Artemis program. “We have a brand new Orion that will have a docking system… We should never rest on our laurels on the SLS. This has to come together because we are building a completely new vehicle every time.”

“We need the suits to be put together, and since the suits are still in their early technical stage of design and development, no one should feel comfortable,” Frye said.

“Every contractor has to perform every mission, and they have to do it at a higher level than ever before because we are now flying humans,” he said.

Blue Moon Evolution

Blue Origin’s HLS architecture is similar to SpaceX’s in that it also requires in-space refueling. But Blue Moon uses liquid hydrogen as fuel, while SpaceX’s spacecraft burns liquid methane. Blue Origin will also launch its landers aboard the company’s New Glenn rocket, which is not expected to launch until late next year at the earliest. For each human landing mission, Blue Origin needs three New Glenn launches — one to send the lander into lunar orbit, and then two more to carry parts of a refueling tug built by Lockheed Martin to fill the lander’s tanks on the lunar surface. It rotates in orbit.

Astronauts flying from Earth aboard NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft will attach to landers — from SpaceX or Blue Origin, depending on the mission — in lunar orbit, then ride to the lunar surface. Landers will transfer the crew to the Orion spacecraft for return to Earth.

Blue Origin’s Mark 1 lander will first fly to the Moon on a demonstration mission, with additional flights planned to deliver scientific payloads to the lunar surface. The first two Mark 1 missions are scheduled to fly no earlier than 2026, according to Aviation Week.

Bezos first unveiled the Blue Moon lander in 2019, presenting a spacecraft that looks much different than the one Blue Origin is working on today. It used the same hydrogen-fueled BE-7 engine, another Blue Origin product in development, but the Blue Moon lander that Bezos demonstrated four years ago was shorter and stable.

Changes to Blue Origin's lunar lander design are shown in this side-by-side comparison between 2019 (left) and today (right).
Zoom in / Changes to Blue Origin’s lunar lander design are shown in this side-by-side comparison between 2019 (left) and today (right).

Blue original

Blue Origin then partnered with the so-called “national team” of space industry giants in 2019 to bid for NASA’s first HLS contract. This consortium included Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper Laboratory, and the lander design was to include three distinct parts. NASA chose SpaceX over Blue Origin’s proposal in 2021, and Blue Origin then filed a lawsuit to protest NASA’s selection of SpaceX.

After the court dismissed the suit, Blue Origin went back to the drawing board and came up with a fully reusable lander design. After completing the first Artemis landing, the Mark 2 lander could hang around in lunar orbit to refuel before additional landing missions.

But Blue Origin and SpaceX must prove they can safely land on the moon before NASA can put astronauts aboard Blue Moon or Starship. The Mark 1 lander announced Friday that it will move Blue Origin in that direction.

“MK1-SN001 (the first Mark 1 lander) demonstrates its proficiency in critical systems, including the BE-7 engine, cryogenic fluid power and propulsion systems, avionics, continuous downlink communications, and precision landing within 100-meter position accuracy, Before the uncrewed launch, Blue Origin said: “NASA’s Human Landing System mission for the Artemis program.”

Coulouris, who oversees Blue Origin’s Blue Moon program, said this week that Blue Origin is working on light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology to enable precision landings on the moon.

“NASA requires landing at a distance of 100 meters at a specific location,” he said Wednesday at the Wernher von Braun Symposium in Alabama. “We use LIDAR terrain relative navigation to have that capability day and night, to look for landmarks.”

Tests of navigation sensors during the landing of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket showed it could be used to land with “one meter” accuracy, he said.

“We are a hydrogen-based vehicle,” Koulouris said. “We do this not only because it is one of the most active propellant combinations, but it also allows us to provide propellant for our reaction control system, and our power.”

“So we’re using fuel cells for the night side, solar arrays for the day side, but eventually we’re looking to develop that into renewable fuel cells so we can start electrolyzing water.”

Liquid hydrogen is very difficult to work with. It must be stored at extremely cold temperatures or it will boil, and its shelf life in space has historically been measured in hours, not days, weeks or months. Blue Origin has agreements with NASA to develop cryogenic fluid management and fluid transfer technology, which Coulouris described as “couplers and pumps to move cryogenic materials from refueling modules to landers.”

The long-term vision is to utilize the ice on the Moon to generate rocket propellants with hydrogen and liquid oxygen. At best, we are still a decade or two away from reaching a suitable level of rocket fuel production.

“If we can make hydrogen a storable propellant, with no boiling systems, we now not only free up lunar resources, but open up the potential for things like NTP (nuclear thermal propulsion) or other propulsion technologies beyond that.” He said.

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