SpaceX’s Special Starship Cargo Lander Capacity Revealed By NASA Ahead Of Fourth Starship Test

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Ahead of the fourth test flight of its Starship rocket, SpaceX has started to work with NASA to develop a cargo variant of the Starshiup HLS lunar lander. SpaceX was awarded a multi-billion dollar contract by NASA to land the first crew on the Moon since the Apollo program and develop cargo variants of its landers. The NASA contract option for these landers was exercised last year, and in a recent update, the space agency shared key capacity and other details for SpaceX and Blue Origin’s cargo landers that will fly to the Moon after the first landing takes place through the Artemis 3 mission.

SpaceX’s Starship HLS Lunar Cargo Lander For NASA’s Artemis Missions To Carry 12 to 15 Metric Tons Of Cargo To The Moon

SpaceX’s Starship was the first lander to receive a contract for crew and cargo missions to the Moon under NASA’s Artemis missions. The award was for roughly $3 billion, and afterward, the space agency built redundancy into the Artemis program by also selecting Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander for its Artemis missions.

Initial NASA release and comments from SpaceX and Blue Origin officials focused primarily on the crewed aspect of the HLS awards. Now, as SpaceX picks up the pace with its Starship development, NASA has shared that it and Blue Origin have started to work on the cargo variants of their spaceships as well.

In a press release, NASA outlined that the cargo landers, part of the original HLS award will land on the Moon starting from the Artemis 7 mission. The Artemis 7 was slated to land on the Moon in 2030 according to a NASA manifest from 2022 – before the space agency moved its timeline for the Artemis 2 mission forward by a year. Artemis 2 will be the first time humans will venture to the Moon since the Apollo program, and the mission was initially slated to launch this year.

SpaceX and Blue Origin’s lunar cargo landers for NASA’s Artemis program. Image: SpaceX and Blue Origin

The second and third Artemis missions were delayed this year with NASA citing safety considerations behind the decision. However, work on the program has continued, with portions of the lunar space station called Gateway entering final build stages as well as SpaceX rapidly progressing with its Starship test activities in Texas after a long delay last year.

The fourth Starship test flight is currently slated to take place in May, and NASA’s release notes that the cargo variants of SpaceX and Blue Origin’s lunar landers will carry between 26 thousand and 33 thousand pounds of cargo to the Moon. This translates into 12 to 15 tons of cargo, according to the space agency. Since the Starship lunar lander is considerably larger than the Blue Moon, it is likely that the higher payload capacity is for SpaceX’s vehicle.

These variants will not be equipped to serve as habitats for the crew, and other changes will include “adjustments for payload interfaces and deployment mechanisms, and the cargo variants”  added the release.

The latest milestone for the Artemis cargo landers kicks off their preliminary design review. NASA will evaluate the work done by its contractors and then decide whether the vehicles are ready to lock in their parameters and proceed to a detailed design process.

SpaceX’s plans for Starship aim to send hundreds of tons of cargo to Mars under future variants of a rocket, according to a recent company presentation. Whether these changes will also cover NASA’s HLS landers is unclear, and as part of its HLS award, SpaceX will also test key propellant transfer operations for Starship next year.

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