The Blue Moon lander is a spacecraft being designed to land on the lunar surface by 2024. The lander is designed and operated by Blue Origin, a rocket and space exploration company created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The lander is similar looking to NASA's old Apollo lunar modules. However, the Blue Moon lander is sizably larger, with “Blue Moon” printed on the side of a spherical fuel tank. It also has smaller landing pads than other lunar landers.
The Blue Moon lander is designed to be customized. It contains robotic tools, like its crane-like davit system, to help it deliver, host and deploy different types of payloads to the moon’s surface. These payloads can include multiple rovers, scientific tools or astronauts. Unlike other landers, the Blue Moon lander may not always carry astronauts. Therefore, it was designed to be fully autonomous. The lander uses liquid hydrogen propulsion, precision guidance, vertical landing and landing gear systems.
Blue Origin unveiled a mock-up of a commercial lunar lander in May 2019. Later that year, NASA announced five US companies that they’d allow to bid for helping design and build human landing systems for NASA’s Artemis Program. In 2020, NASA announced the three organizations which would help them, including Blue Moon.
Bezos' stated goal is a "future where millions of people are living and working in space. In order to preserve Earth, our home, for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy." Despite this, Blue Origin's goal is not to populate the Moon -- although manned stations are envisioned. Instead, Bezos foresees a future where industry could be moved off-planet Earth and into orbit, using O'Neill cylinders to create orbiting factories, farms and data centers.
How the Blue Moon lander Works
The lander is designed to "soft land" 3.6 metric tons onto the lunar surface. A soft landing is a controlled landing of a spacecraft, to avoid any potential damage. A larger "stretch tank" variant of the lander will land 6.5 metric tons. The cargo deck on the lander’s roof is designed so that a variety of payloads can be harnessed to it. Payloads are lowered to the lunar surface with a crane-like davit system. The lander is designed to transport up to four rovers that can carry personnel or equipment.
Because the Blue Moon lander can't use a GPS system, it will use a star tracking system to autonomously navigate across the previously mapped Moon surface. An optical communication located on the side opposite the star tracker system gives the Blue Moon lander gigabit bandwidth from it back to Earth. In addition to the laser it uses for communications, the vehicle is also equipped with a 10-megabit radio.
The lander will use liquid hydrogen as its fuel. Blue Origin chose liquid hydrogen for two reasons, according to Bezos: high performance and its ability to be replenished with hydrogen that can be distilled from frozen water at the lunar poles. That same water will produce oxygen for breathing. The lander will also use hydrogen fuel cells, which will be more practical than solar power, given that a lunar night lasts about two weeks. The lander is also designed to land on relatively small inclines of 15 degrees.
Blue Origin’s B-7 engine, which has been matched with the lander, has 10,000 pounds of thrust. When the lander is fully loaded, it will have 33,000 pounds of fuel and about 7,000 pounds of fuel at landing, after a six-minute burn in descent.
Reusable launch vehicles
One of Blue Origin's key strategies is the use of reusable launch vehicles to lower costs. While the lander is the vehicle that descends and rests on the surface of a planet or moon, the launch vehicle -- or carrier rocket -- is the rocket-propelled vehicle that carriers a payload from Earth to space or other bodies.
The launch vehicles include New Shepard, named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space. New Shepard had flown five missions as of May 2019, when it flew 38 payloads for schools, universities, government agencies and private companies.
Blue Origin's New Glenn launch vehicle, named after astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, is scheduled to take flight in 2021. It will use seven BE-4 liquified oxygen / liquefied natural gas engines, enabling it to launch payloads over 13 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit and 45 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. This stage of the New Glenn will generate about 3.85 million pounds of thrust at sea level.
The payload is expected to include Telesat's low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation into space. Blue Origin also signed a partnership with the U.S. Air Force to use the New Glenn.
Teams and the NASA Artemis program
Blue Origin has had more than 50 job openings specific the Blue Moon lunar lander program. Positions included chief engineer and administrative assistants. However, the majority of positions have been related to software engineering and systems development.
In October of 2019, Bezos announced a “national team” in order to bring astronauts to the Moon in NASA’s Artemis program. On this team, Blue Origin will work with three aerospace organizations: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. Lockheed Martin is building the reusable “Ascent Element,” that will house the astronauts and return them to lunar orbit. Northrop Grumman is providing the “Transfer Element,” used to bring the lander closer to the Moon before the lander would separate to make its descent. Draper is designing the navigational systems. Blue Origin is leading the team, providing the descent elements that will take the astronauts to the lunar surface.
Blue Origin and SpaceX
Blue Origin is part of the billionaire space race, a rivalry between privately-owned space programs between billionaires from different industries. Two examples of this are Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin and Elon Musk with SpaceX -- among others. SpaceX is a company with similar goals to Blue origin. For example, while Blue Origin is focusing on building reusable launch vehicles like the New Glenn, Space X is focusing on further development on their similar, reusable Falcon Heavy rocket.
These two companies have been in conflict in the past. The conflicts range from competing press releases, court cases and even Twitter feuds. Notable moments include when Blue Origin and SpaceX battled for the rights to lease the LC-398 rocket launch platform -- which was used to launch the Apollo moon missions. SpaceX also filed and won another suit against Blue Origin that invalidated Blue Origin’s patent on landing rockets on ships at sea.