As the Houston Chronicle notes, NASA has been quietly working on a lunar rover called the Resource Prospector since 2009. The mission, should it be given the go-ahead, would cost about $250 million, considered cheap by space agency standards. The current plan would be to land the Resource Prospector on the moon in the 2022-23 timeframe. Whether or not the trump administration funds projects like NASA’s lunar rover, as well as enter into partnerships with companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic, will be an early sign of how serious it is about going back to the moon.

Prospecting for water

Ever since the Clementine mission of the early 1990s, scientists have known that the lunar poles contain deposits of ice tucked away in permanently shadowed craters.

Billions of years of comet bombardments have created billions of tons of ice, enough to sustain a lunar settlement and to refine it into rocket fuel for spacecraft headed deeper into the solar system, such as Mars.

The task that is ahead is to determine where the ice is and in what quantities. NASA’s Resource Prospector would roll over the lunar surface, occasionally drill, and learn how much ice resides in the soil samples it extracts. Robotic landers being developed by private companies will perform the same task and at a price far cheaper than NASA proposes to pay for its in-house rover.

What happens next?

Presuming that Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle passes its tests, Moon Express may be the first to land on the moon in 2018 as part of the Google Lunar Xprize.

Team Hakuto has enough funding and a launch contract. Team Indus and SpaceIl are having funding problems as of this writing. No one has heard much about Synergy Moon, the fifth finalist in the Google Lunar XPrize. The Indian Space Research Organization plans to land the Chandrayaan 2 on the moon in early 2018.

Further afield, China, Russia, Japan, and even South Korea have plans to land robots on the moon in the next few years.

Astrobotic has plans for a lunar landing in 2019. Moon Express has two more planned moon landings, planned following the one in 2018.

The next step for the Trump administration to prove it is serious about going back to the moon would be to fund the Resource Prospector and set a launch date sooner than five or so years from now.

It should also reach out to the commercial lunar companies and set up missions for hire to mount a systematic search for ice on the moon. We should have a good idea where and in what quantities it resides and how to get at it before the first human footsteps in decades occur.