MOJAVE — Masten Space Systems has made a name for itself by providing highly-reusable, vertical takeoff and landing rockets as testbeds for myriad space technologies, primarily related to entry, descent and landing. The company has made hundreds of low-altitude flights, with an emphasis on precision landings.
That experience is now feeding into not only development of a lunar lander, but also to address a complication for using rockets to land on its loose, dusty surface: the damage that may be caused by the dirt and debris kicked up by the rocket plume.
The Moon’s surface is covered with rocky substance known as lunar regolith. The force of the rocket used to control landing to its surface kicks up this regolith, throwing it about the sharp-edged pieces. With the larger landers planned for future Moon missions, larger landing rockets will create even more projectiles flying at higher speeds, according to a Masten news release.
To address this problem, the company is developing “instant” landing pads, by essentially injecting a substance into the rocket plume shortly before landing, which then hardens to create a solid pad.
Masten has successfully completed the first phase of testing of this in-Flight Alumina Spray Technique (FAST), under an award from NASA.
The program is a collaboration with Honeybee Robotics, Texas A&M University and the University of Central Florida.
This initial phase proved the concept is feasible, company officials said.
Masten is in a unique position for this kind of study, officials said, as it has years of experience with the concrete landing pads at the Mojave Air and Space Port to see the repeated effects of the rocket plume on the surface. This is in addition to being able to see the thermal effects on the surface through years of weathering in the unforgiving Mojave Desert environment.
The company uses this experience to provide insight into types of stresses and environments the landing pads will be exposed to, including how deep the damage goes during single or multiple landing/launch cycles, officials said.
The first phase just completed laid this kind of groundwork for future development. The next phase, which is awaiting funding, would be to test it in a lunar environment, officials said.
Masten is also at work on its XL-1 lunar lander, scheduled for a flight to the Moon’s south pole in 2023.
The robotic lander is designed to carry scientific payloads for NASA.
Named Xelene after the Greek goddess of the moon (with a shift from the initial letter “S” in keeping with the company’s naming theme), the XL-1 will feature four engines arranged at the corners of an essentially rectangular spacecraft. Much like their earlier rockets, the lander will use the engines for a controlled landing. While this upcoming mission will not use the FAST technology, company officials hope to apply it to future ones.