The day before, the space exploration community was roiled by the news that the Lunar Resource Prospector, a long developed mission to send a rover to one of the moon’s poles, had been canceled. The decision seemed to be somewhat at odds with President Donald Trump’s mandate for NASA to return astronauts to the lunar surface. However, the space agency’s administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter to try to clarify what was really going on in context of the overall plans for lunar exploration.

The lunar exploration campaign

NASA issued a statement further clarifying its plans.

While the lander and rover parts of the Resource Prospector that would fly to the moon have not been built, many of the instruments have been developed and tested. These instruments will fly to the moon as part of the space agency’s effort to help build commercial lunar landers of increasing size and complexity, leading eventually to the first landing of humans on the moon’s surface since 1972. The first of these missions, being developed by such companies as Moon Express and Astrobotic, are due to fly as early as 2019.

What happens to the Lunar Resource Prospector?

The same statement NASA issued contains a lengthy description of the virtues of lunar mining and how the Lunar Resource Prospector mission fits into it.

The LRP would traverse the lunar surface, using a drill to take samples, and then heat them in an oven to ascertain whether or not they contain volatiles, especially water. Water, thought to exist in abundance in ice pockets in dark portions of lunar craters at the poles, will be the key to opening up the moon and the solar system to human exploration.

Water can be used for a variety of purposes, drinking, agriculture, and for refining into rocket fuel.

However, nothing in the update states explicitly that the decision to cancel the Lunar Resource Prospector has been reversed and that the mission will fly in 2022 as planned. Even though it is not yet an approved mission of the manifest, NASA has been developing the LRP for four years, testing prototypes on Earth.

The money needed to build and fly the Lunar Resource Prospector would not be immense. The mission would complement rather than compete with the joint flights planned for commercially developed landers and rovers.

In the meantime, a number of other countries such as India and China are planning their own moon missions, as well as private groups in places such as Germany, Israel, and Japan. No doubt NASA will further clarify as to whether the LRP will also fly to the moon.