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Firefly gets nod from NASA to deliver Lunar Pathfinder to the Moon

LuSEE in the sky with ... data

Firefly Aerospace has won a second NASA contract to take hardware to the Moon – including the hotly anticipated Lunar Pathfinder satellite that will serve as a communication relay between future Lunarians and Earthlings.

The award, worth just under $112 million, will see Firefly deliver the Lunar Pathfinder into the Moon's orbit, as well as dropping a couple of experiments off on the far side of the Moon, when it launches in 2026.

Firefly's contribution to the mission will be "end to end," Firefly said, and will involve the outfit's Blue Ghost spacecraft in a two-stage configuration that will launch the Lunar Pathfinder and then send a lander to the surface of the Moon to deliver its experimental payload.

The first of those experiments, the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment-Night (LuSEE-Night), will make radio observations to take a look at the period in universal history known as the "dark ages," a period that began around 370,000 years after the Big Bang and lasted until the first stars formed. 

The far side of the Moon is ideal for making such radio observations, NASA said, because the Moon blocks radio noise from Earth. NASA said LuSEE-Night will make its observations during the 14-day long lunar night.

Because LuSEE is going to take up residence on the far side of the Moon, it'll need to be able to communicate with Lunar Pathfinder in order to send and receive commands, which is where the second part of the experiment comes in: the User Terminal, or UT. 

The UT, which consists of a software-defined radio, antenna, network switch and sample data source, "will institute a new standard for S-Band Proximity-1 space communication protocol and establish space heritage," NASA said. The UT will be used to commission Lunar Pathfinder to ensure it's able to communicate with Earth when LuSEE-Night is gathering data.

Firefly was previously awarded a $93.3 million NASA contract in 2021 to deliver a payload of 10 scientific experiments to the Moon's surface. That mission was originally scheduled for 2023, but Firefly's website now indicates that mission will take place in 2024.

Shiny - but how we gonna get there?

It's not immediately clear how Firefly plans to get it second payload to the Moon. The first will be getting there by hitching a ride on one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, but when the contract was announced in 2021 Firefly had yet to get one of its own rockets into orbit.

Firefly's "economical small satellite launch" Alpha rocket has since successfully reached space, where it delivered several satellites to low-Earth orbit last October. The company is also working on a larger medium-lift vehicle that's scheduled to launch for the first time in 2025.

So far, government-designed rockets have been necessary to get spacecraft and humans to the Moon, and the only commercial project attempting to reach that far into space is Elon Musk's SpaceX and its yet-to-reach-orbit Starship.

Musk claimed last month that Starship's first orbital launch attempt could come as soon as this month, but in classic Musk style, time is running out for SpaceX to meet that goal. The company is planning a mission to the Moon's orbit and back for later this year that will be crewed by a Japanese billionaire and a "crew of artists, content creators, and athletes from all around the world," because science is for nerds. 

We asked Firefly how it plans to launch its second Moon mission and it told us that because of the size of the two-stage Blue Ghost spacecraft, it would be collaborating with "another launch partner for this lunar mission."

It said the specific launch vehicle hadn't been finalized yet, although it said that in future lunar missions, the Blue Ghost lander could be launched via Firefly's new Medium Launch Vehicle, which is being co-developed with Northrop Grumman.

The aerospace company added that global events including the Ukrainian war had an impact on its original mission schedule, and that it had been "no longer able to import engines from its planned supplier", but said the team overcame this problem by switching main engine suppliers and developing its own reaction control system thrusters.

Manufacturing many "key Blue Ghost components in house" worked out for the engineers, who said they were "confident in the 2024 timeline for Blue Ghost Mission 1" after building their own core avionics, batteries and thrusters as well as the primary structure. ®

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