Over half a century since the Apollo 11 space mission, humans are finally (hopefully) returning to the moon in 2024. As NASA Artemis 3 Program plans its lunar exploration with commercial and international partners, it’s placing an emphasis on a more collaborative effort paired with exciting innovations. Not only is the mission expected to bring new knowledge and inspiration to the next generation of spacefarers, but the project will also give humans the opportunity to test technologies and resources that can send humans to Mars and beyond.
After China and private enterprise landed the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon in 2019, NASA increased efforts to put humans back on the moon before 2025 “by any means necessary.” Although an ambitious goal, the hope of establishing a permanent human presence on the moon and in lunar orbit has become a prominent goal for the end of the next decade.
Let’s explore what’s in store of lunar exploration and a possible permanent presence:
Plans for Lunar Exploration
Today, NASA and other private NewSpace companies have plans on (and are on the cusp of) commercializing low-Earth orbit. The United States leads a coalition of nations and private industry partnerships that include Blue Origin, SpaceX and small businesses and enable NASA to return to the moon — and stay for good. NASA’s Commercial Resupply, for instance, allows American companies to resupply the International Space Station while their Commercial Crew Program provides reliable, safe and cost-efficient access to low-Earth orbit and the Space Station.
Among one of the most important short-term goals for this mission is learning more about lunar water ice located at the poles. Evidence of water ice was found in direct impact craters in 2018 and, when we land, we can focus on how we can sustainably use that water as a crucial resource in our exploration.
Of course, this is all to prepare us to explore and eventually colonize the moon, but we’ll need sophisticated technologies to do so.
Technologies for Exploration
Among the new technologies NASA and the NewSpace sector have worked on, twelve new investigations now harness tools from new mining machines to laser features that will help us gain a deeper knowledge of our moon.
Firstly, when we get back to the moon we will need to survey and map its terrain. A payload called MoonRanger will regularly travel beyond its lander’s communication range (up to .6 miles) away. Heimdall, a flexible camera system will help model the properties and detail potential landing spots and other geographical characteristics. L-CIRIS (The Lunar Compact InfraRed Imaging System), a development between CU Boulder and Ball Aerospace, will then measure infrared wavelengths to determine the composition of the surface and its temperature distribution.
LuSEE (The Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment will examine electromagnetic activity and magnetic fields on the moon’s surface, while the SAMPLR (Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering, and Probing of Lunar Regolith) takes samples from the moon using a spare robotic arm. Additionally, the RAC (Regolith Adherence Characterization) payload will consider how lunar regolith sticks to spacecraft materials to learn how tacky the moondust becomes during different phases of spaceflight. LISTER (Lunar Instrumentation for Subsurface Thermal Exploration with Rapidity) examines the dust after it drills 7 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) into the surface to measure the temperature.
To make the moon more habitable and mitigate major health risks and damage to computers, solar radiation needs to be properly managed. The Lunar Demonstration of a Reconfigurable, Radiation Tolerant Computer System tests technologies to withstand the harsh environment. Particles from the sun, solar wind, will be targeted by LEXI (The Lunar Environment heliospheric X-ray Imager), capturing images of how the solar wind and Earth’s much stronger magnetosphere interact.
Scientists also want to learn more about the relationship between our blue planet and the moon. NGLR (Next Generation Lunar Retroreflectors) will be used as a target for lasers on Earth so we can finally make precise measurements of the distance between the two celestial bodies.
Although we have a lot of challenges ahead of us in the next decade when it comes to lunar exploration, we are making slow and steady progress forward. It is unlikely we will have lunar tourists in the next decade, but our presence there can set the foundations for more accessible moon tourism in the decades to come.