Previously, the Obama administration had abandoned a planned lunar mission, partly because of cost, in favor of focusing upon going to Mars in the 2030s.
Steve Clarke, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, says that the missions flown by commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) will include a mixture of instruments and technology demonstrations. "We want to fly a mixture as much as we can, so they collectively can provide data to the science community and to the folks who are designing the next human lander," he explains.
The scientific instruments sent to the moon will be "trying to characterize the lunar surface, looking for hydrogen molecules and actual traces of water or water ice in the soil, and looking for various other elements that are on the lunar surface," Clarke says.
But those studies will do more than just add to our knowledge of Earth's natural satellite. "We know there are volatiles at the poles on the Moon, and quite frankly, that water ice could represent rocket fuel," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press release. "If we have the capability to generate rocket fuel from the surface of the Moon, and get them into orbit around the Moon, we could use that to build a fueling depot."
On the technology side, one payload will include solar energy technology. "We're looking to advance the science and engineering of solar cells to make them more efficient," Clarke says. That will benefit space missions that are dependent upon solar energy, but the work will have applications back on Earth as well. Other technology being tested involves entry descent and landing (EDL) systems, which will help improve the design of future lunar landers — including the human lander that eventually will take astronauts to the lunar surface again.