NASA has awarded three companies contracts to transport cargo to the moon, as part of the space agency’s renewed focus on lunar missions, according to Science. The landings would come a half century after the US last landed on the moon, with one of the three companies aiming to complete a mission as soon as next fall.

The moves comes ahead of NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon by 2024. It’s not yet clear where the agency plans to get its funding for the project, and enlisting private companies will likely be a key piece of that puzzle.

The contracts, worth a total of $254 million, were awarded to Pittsburgh-based Astrobiotic, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond, located in Edison, New Jersey. It’s the first set of contracts awarded in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, announced last year. It will include a total of $2.6 billion, and by 2024, could be launching uncrewed lunar missions three to four times a year.

The effort is aiming to capture the public’s interest, to show results from their tax dollar investment, and to answer new questions raised by scientists.

“If you’re going to have a space program, the way to keep it going is to show return of investment to the taxpayer,” according to University of Notre Dame lunar scientist Clive Neal.

NASA has not yet finished selecting instruments for the landers, and is calling on both its scientists and outside researchers to provide finished equipment. The agency says many of the instruments will be geared toward learning more about water on the moon, the extent of which has become clear to scientists in recent years.

The 2024 crewed mission is expected to focus on the moon’s south pole, which means it’s likely that the robotic missions will explore that area in advance.

The CLPS program is modeled on NASA’s program to pay companies to transport goods to the international space station, which has helped to drive private development.

“Today, NASA becomes a customer of commercial partners who will deliver our science instruments and our lunar technology to the moon,” according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The landers and instruments they deliver—and the science, technology and research that will be done in the immediate future—will prepare the way for humanity’s return to the moon by 2024.”


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