In another move designed to encourage private space development, American space agency Nasa has invited commercial companies to develop probes to land on the Moon.
Part of a new programme called Lunar Catalyst, the initiative follows the previous commercial crew and cargo programmes that have already seen results with SpaceX’s Dragon re-supply vehicle and Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft successfully docking at the International Space Station.
"The intent of this initiative is to stimulate and help commersialization," Jason Crusan, who oversees Nasa's advanced exploration programmes, said during a conference call with prospective bidders on Monday.
Nasa offers to provide engineering guidance as well as its facilities, seeking a balanced approach in which its contributions will help accelerate the development of industry projects.
"If a team came in and wanted everything from Nasa and (wanted) us to build the landing service for them, that's not really much of a partnership," Crusan said.
Companies interested in Lunar Catalyst have until mid-March to submit business plans and proposals to the agency, which could decide to purchase hardware or services at a future date.
The agency, for example, is developing a mission to mine water on the Moon and intends to partner with Canada and other countries to develop a rover and a lander. If those plans fall through, however, Nasa could look to buy the equipment from, or partner with, US companies, Crusan said.
Nasa already has contracts to buy lunar science and technical data from several teams competing in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition to land and operate a privately owned vehicle on the Moon before the end of 2015.
The agency is also supporting a project developing vehicles for transporting human crew to space. At least three firms, SpaceX, Boeing and privately owned Sierra Nevada, are in the running for Nasa funding to help get their spaceships ready for test flights before the end of 2017.