Headed to the moon: the Trailblazer program and NASA space act agreement

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13 October 2021

The Australian Government has announced an agreement with NASA for a small Australian-made ‘foundation services rover’ to be included in a future mission.

The semi-autonomous rover will be used to demonstrate the collection of lunar soil (regolith), which contains oxygen (in the form of oxides). Using separate equipment that will be sent to the moon with the rover, NASA will aim to extract oxygen from the regolith. This is a key step towards establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon, as well supporting future missions to Mars.

The mission will demonstrate Australian industry’s world leading skills and experience in remote operations and autonomous systems. We will be drawing from our expertise in the resources and mining sector.

The project will be supported through the Trailblazer program under the Australian Government’s $150 million Moon to Mars initiative.

Opportunity for industry

An industry-led consortium of Australian businesses and research organisations will develop the foundation services rover. International partners may also support the consortium.

Up to $50 million will be made available through the Trailblazer program of the Moon to Mars initiative to support the development of the rover and cover the cost of its key tasks.

NASA intends to fly the rover to the lunar surface provided it meets a range of conditions during this phase of the collaboration. It is expected to launch no earlier than 2026.

The key objectives for the Trailblazer program include:

  • accelerating the growth of the Australian space industry
  • building Australian space capability and capacity
  • lifting Australian involvement in national and international supply chains
  • inspiring the Australian public.

With a key objective of the Trailblazer program being building Australian space industry capability and capacity, investment through the program will focus here in Australia.

The successful consortium will also be expected to provide a financial contribution to the project. The financial contribution is an important factor in the assessment criteria.

Foundation services

Foundation services are operational activities that support exploration missions to build towards a sustained off-earth presence. They will ultimately support permanent outposts. Demand for foundation services is recurrent, continuous or enduring in nature.

Foundation services can include:

  • monitoring and remote inspection
  • planning, logistics and remote maintenance
  • civil construction,  materials transport and cargo handling
  • component manufacture and assembly.

Activities undertaken as part of this mission will be consistent with Australia’s international obligations. This includes the five international space treaties.

Australia is also a founding signatory to the Artemis Accords, signed October 2020. This will establish a practical set of principles to guide space exploration and aim to:

  • increase the safety of operations
  • reduce uncertainty
  • promote the sustainable and beneficial use of space.

Activities will also be conducted consistent with the Accords, which are grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

The Mission and Rover

While the detailed design is up to the consortium, it is expected that the mission and rover will need to achieve indicative criteria including, but not limited to:

  • developing a foundation services rover (incl. deployment system) capable of operating on the moon
  • conducting the primary foundation services task, which is to collect and provide lunar regolith to a NASA payload, with a high level of autonomy
  • ensuring the rover and deployment system is 20kg or less.

The scope of the foundation services mission draws on consultations with NASA. It also draws on the feedback received during the consultation on the Trailblazer program earlier this year.

Final details on the proposed mission and rover will be provided when the Trailblazer program opens later this year.  

Indicative assessment criteria

The industry proposals for the Trailblazer program are expected to be assessed against criteria, including, but not limited to:

  1. The extent the solution meets the mission constraints and how the project team will assure the quality of the solution
  2. The capacity, capability and resources to deliver the proposed mission and how it meets the mission constraints, including financial contributions
  3. The commercial viability of the solution and the impact the mission will have on the Australian space sector.

The criteria are provided to highlight some of the key considerations applications will likely need to address to be competitive, and are subject to change.

The final assessment criteria will be provided when the Trailblazer program opens later this year.  

Applications

Further details will be announced when the Trailblazer program guidelines are released later this year.

The program is expected to open later this year, with applications expected to be submitted in early 2022.

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