As NASA nears a return to the moon with the Artemis program, the excitement of lunar scientists reaches a fever pitch

Lunar science is about to be transformed by NASA’s Artemis lunar program, which will send astronauts to the lunar surface after more than a 50-year absence and launch nearly five dozen robotic missions over the next three years.

The launch of the Artemis 1 mission is currently scheduled for August. 29, with an unmanned Orion capsule on the powerful Space Launch System rocket, NASA’s largest and most powerful rocket since the Saturn V that powered the Apollo missions. The capsule will circumnavigate the moon and then head back for a splashdown on Earth, paving the way for a crewed mission to orbit the moon in 2024 and then landing astronauts on the south pole of the moon as early as 2025 or 2026.

This will be the first astronaut walk on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, and it opens up new possibilities for science.

Related: The Complete Guide to Moon Watching

“Humans offer an incredible resource for returning to the lunar surface,” Debra Needham, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, told

Purely robotic missions are slow and everything is relayed through their human controllers on Earth. And while the introduction of artificial intelligence has somewhat automated this process, a robot does not have the quick wit, curiosity, or dexterity to make collecting rock samples an efficient process. For example.

“It’s easier for an astronaut to pick up a rock and then see another rock out of the corner of their eye and immediately mark it as interesting,” Ryan Watkins, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told “Real-time decision making is much faster and more efficient.”

The diagram shows 13 candidate regions for the Artemis 3 moon landing. (Image credit: NASA)

First landing site

To achieve the best results in science, astronauts must go to the right places on the moon. The six Apollo landing sites were clustered in areas on the near side of the Moon. Artemis 3, set to be the first Artemis mission to travel to the lunar regolith, will instead travel to the Moon’s south polar region. This region is attractive not only for the large amount of water ice hidden in permanently shaded craters, but also for the first time that astronauts will travel there, far from the Apollo landing sites.

“While they were quite spread out over the surface, the Apollo missions were still mostly sent to one part of the Moon, which may have been affected by the very strong impact that created the Mare Imbrium,” Needham said. The Mare Imbrium (“Sea of ​​Rains”) is a giant impact basin 712 miles (1,146 kilometers) wide that formed 3.9 billion years ago and then was flooded with lava.

Scientists have suggested that the creation of this impact basin coincided with the Late Heavy Bombardment, which has been proposed as a period between 4.2 billion and 3.9 billion years ago, when the inner planets were bombarded by asteroids and comets. However, recent discoveries (will open in a new tab) questioned this theory, and sampling other parts of the moon may help resolve the dispute.

“One of the reasons we’re moving so far away from this impact basin is to access different types of rocks that are potentially older and preserve a record of an older moon,” Needham said. “We will be able to get a good idea of ​​whether there was a period of really intense bombing or not.”

An artist’s rendering of one of Astrobotic’s Peregrine landers delivering a payload to the lunar surface. (Image credit: Astrobotic)

Lots of robotics

Artemis is not only astronauts. While humans will be able to do more scientific research in a shorter time, plans for just one crewed mission a year mean that astronauts won’t be able to be everywhere on the Moon. So to help lunar science during the Artemis program, dozens of robotic experiments will be delivered to locations across the Moon between 2022 and 2025. These experiments are conducted through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which are operated by commercial contractors. with NASA on a $2.6 billion program to launch small science missions to the Moon, with 46 payloads completed so far.

Watkins said her personal favorite payload is a probe called the Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer (Lunar-VISE), which will land on the Gruithuisen volcanic domes that lie between Mare Imbrium and Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”), and that Watkins studied in his student years using orbital data.

These domes are considered felsic, which means they were formed by silica-rich magma. But on Earth, silicon-based volcanic formations require plate tectonics and form near plate boundaries in the oceans. How, then, could they form on the Moon, where there were neither oceans of water nor plate tectonics? There are several geological theories, and Lunar-VISE will be equipped with both a stationary lander and a rover that will take composition measurements at various locations around the domes to test the various theories.

The mysterious Gruithuizen volcanic domes where the Lunar-VISE payload will be sent. (Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

water on the moon

Needham is also excited about many of the payloads in the CLPS program, including a flying near-infrared spectrometer system, a neutron spectrometer system on a small robotic rover called the MoonRanger, and a mass spectrometer that monitors lunar operations. Several replicas of these three instruments will be delivered to the moon by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technologies later this year and California-based Masten Space Systems in 2023. low boiling points, like those of water and carbon dioxide – on the surface of the Moon, in the near-surface layers and directly above the surface, in a thin “exosphere”.

“What’s nice is that we’re launching multiple copies of these payloads, with the first iteration going to the non-polar region, and then we’ll also send them to the polar region in a later delivery,” Needham said. “This way we can compare these two very different parts of the moon using the same instruments.”

At first glance, the Moon doesn’t look wet, and studies of rock samples brought back to Earth by the Apollo missions have shown them to be dry as bone. But apart from the ice hidden in the cold traps of the permanently shadowed craters at the poles, water molecules (or at least hydroxyl molecules, which are water substitutes formed from an oxygen atom attached to one hydrogen atom, not two hydrogen atoms). as in the case of water) were observed migrating on the lunar surface near the day and night terminators. These observations were originally made with NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter in 2009, and in 2020 with the soon-to-be decommissioned Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). modified Boeing 747 confirmed the presence of water molecules near the surface of the Moon, albeit in a very thin shell.

“We now know that there is water almost everywhere on the Moon,” Needham said. “But this is from a different source and in a different form than the water in the south polar region. These payloads can give us some confidence in remote measurements, and this is important for input into models that describe the circulation of water on the Moon.”

It is not yet clear how sustainable the manned portion of the Artemis lunar program is and whether more manned missions will land on the lunar surface after Artemis 3, given that each launch will cost more than $4 billion. On the other hand, the relatively lower cost of the CLPS portion of the Artemis program guarantees dozens of scientific experiments across the Moon, providing scientists with an unprecedented amount of new data to decipher.

“We look forward to discoveries that we are going to make in new places on the lunar surface,” Needham said.

Follow Keith Cooper on Twitter @21stCenturySETI. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker.