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NASA axes The Resource Prospector mission

Konstantin Sheiko
June 8, 2018

NASA has canceled a mission to assay the resources that may be available to humans on the Moon, even though President Donald Trump's administration made it a priority to send humans back there, according to media reports.

The Resource Prospector mission would have sent a rover to the Moon's polar regions to learn about water and other deposits on and just beneath the lunar surface. Scientists have sent an open letter to NASA, urging not to shut down the agency's only current moon mission, which has already been in development for four years.

The Resource Prospector mission consisted of a lander and a solar-powered rover equipped with a drill. The rover would have scouted the lunar surface, digging up soil for analysis. Scientists know that water ice is present on the Moon, but the Resource Prospector would have provided scientists with a more complete understanding of these deposits.

Such knowledge is crucial to expanding a human presence on the Moon. Lunar ice can potentially be melted and split into oxygen and hydrogen, providing a local source of water, oxygen and rocket propellant. This would not only help make human activities more self-sustaining, but also dramatically reduce launch costs because many of these vital resources could be produced on-site.

Although it was not yet fully funded, the Resource Prospector mission had gotten well past the drawing board. Engineers had been working on the project for four years, and prototypes were tested on Earth in 2015 and 2016. Plans had the mission launching in 2022. Issues likely started when the mission was transferred from one directorate within NASA to another.

Originally, it was funded with money allocated for human exploration. However, it was moved to the section that funds scientific missions. Although Resource Prospector was a robotic mission, it did not fit as well within the Science Mission Directorate's priorities or budget, which is likely why it was canceled. NASA's human exploration program is currently working on the massive Space Launch System rocket, which accounts for a sizeable portion of the program's budget.

Given the recent growth of private launch companies, a number of people have criticized NASA's decision to continue developing this costly rocket. Several scientists at LEAG, which advises NASA on lunar exploration, wrote a letter urging to re-evaluate the decision to cancel the mission. In their letter, they explained the mission's importance in current plans to return humans to the Moon and expand the nation's lunar presence overall.

The decision to cancel the Resource Prospector mission is peculiar given the current administration's plans for NASA. Trump has repeatedly called for NASA to return humans to the Moon, ordering NASA to return astronauts to the Moon ahead of crewed missions to Mars and beyond.

The Resource Prospector also fits in nicely with the Trump administration's desire to foster NASA's partnerships with the commercial space industry, as there's been increased interest in lunar exploration from private companies. Several businesses have plans to send their own spacecraft to the moon, and some would like to set up commercial operations there. The moon could even serve as a space port for longer-distance missions, like those to Mars. 

Photo: Nasa