In a bit of déjà vu, SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have secured yet another contract to launch a commercial Moon lander – this time from company Intuitive Machines.
SpaceX’s eighth Moon lander launch contract overall and seventh scheduled Moon lander mission in the 2020s, Intuitive Machines revealed its third contract with SpaceX – a mission known as IM-3 – on August 10th. Like IM-1 and IM-2, IM-3 will rely on Intuitive Machines’ 1900 kg (~4200 lb) Nova-C lander. The company has upgraded the lander’s performance since its last contract and now says that IM-3 will deliver up to 130 kg (~290 lb) – not 100 kg, as previously stated – to the lunar surface.
According to Intuitive Machines, IM-3 will launch no earlier than Q1 2024 and carry its 130-kilogram cargo to the Moon – though IM has yet to say where on the Moon it’s headed. In a unique twist, the company has implied that it purchased an entire Falcon 9 launch for the mission and will be able to support up to one ton (~2200 lb) of rideshare payloads as a result.
It’s unclear if some or all of that one-ton rideshare allotment will be able to tag along all the way to lunar orbit or if those extra spacecraft will have to deploy shortly after reaching orbit. Either way, given the total payload mass of just three tons (~6600 lb), IM-3 will be an extremely rare opportunity for nano, cube, and small satellites to hitch a ride to a very high elliptical Earth orbit – and possibly all the way to cislunar space.
A recoverable Falcon 9 rocket like the one IM-3 will launch on is capable of delivering at least 3.3 metric tons (~7300 lb) to a trans-lunar injection (TLI) trajectory – directly to the Moon, in other words. Nova-C will still need to use several hundred kilograms of propellant to enter lunar orbit once it reaches the Moon but a TLI launch would allow for a significantly more efficient landing – possibly explaining how Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C payload jumped from 100 to 130 kg in the last year or two.
IM-3 is the third Moon lander launch contract win for SpaceX in 2021 alone, following on the footsteps of IM-2 in January 2021 and Firefly Space’s first Blue Ghost mission in May 2021. All told, SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are now scheduled to launch a minimum of eight commercial Moon landers in 2022 and 2023 – launch contracts that are likely worth at least $300M to $400M.
For the time being, it looks like SpaceX’s exceptionally affordable reusable Falcon rockets will continue to dominate the commercial launch industry and especially corner the market for high-energy launches to the Moon.