By 2030, multiple space agencies will have sent astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program ended over 50 years ago. These programs will create lasting infrastructure, like the Lunar Gateway, Artemis Base Camp, Moon Village, and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). In the ensuing decade, the first crewed missions to Mars are expected to occur, culminating with the creation of the first human outposts on another planet. Commercial ventures also want to establish habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), enabling everything from asteroid mining to space tourism.
One of the biggest challenges for this renewed era of space exploration (Space Age 2.0) is ensuring that humans can remain healthy while spending extended periods in space. Foremost among them is ensuring that crews have functioning life support systems that can provide a steady supply of breathable air, which poses its own technical challenges. In a recent study, a team of researchers led by Katharina Brinkert of the University of Warwick described how artificial photosynthesis could lead to a new type of life support system that is smaller, lighter, easier, and more cost-effective to send to space.
Despite all the hype surrounding the coming of the commercial space age, NASA and other governmental agencies will still play a vital role in the early stages of getting much of the infrastructure up and running before commercial actors can come in. That role will primarily be filled by being the first (and sometimes only) customer for a wide variety of companies that hope to profit from exploiting space resources.
Multiple missions are destined for the Moon in this decade. These include robotic and crewed missions conducted by space agencies, commercial space entities, and non-profit organizations. The risks and hazards of going to the Moon are well-documented, thanks to Apollo Program and the six crewed missions it sent to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. But unlike the “footprints and flags” of yesterday, the plan for the coming decade is to create a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.”
This means establishing a greater presence on the Moon, building infrastructure (like habitats, power systems, and landing pads), and missions regularly coming and going. Given the low-gravity environment on the Moon, spacecraft kick up a lot of lunar regolith (aka., “Moon dust”) during takeoff and landing. This regolith is electrostatically-charged, very abrasive, and wreaks havoc on machines and equipment. In a recent study, NASA researchers Philip T. Metzger and James G. Mantovani considered how much damage all this regolith could inflict on orbiting spacecraft.
As Artemis II gets ready to launch in November 2024, NASA recently announced it is pursuing contract proposals from private companies for the development of a next-generation Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) to be used for crewed missions starting with Artemis V, which is currently scheduled for 2029. NASA has set a due date for the proposals of July 10, 2023, at 1:30pm Central Time, with the announcement for rewarded contracts to occur in November 2023.
In the early days of spaceflight, just getting a satellite into Earth’s orbit was an accomplishment. In our era, landing rovers on other planets and bringing samples home from asteroids is the cutting edge. But the next frontier is rapidly approaching, when astronauts will stay for long periods of time on the Moon and hopefully Mars.
But before we can send people to those dangerous environments, the Artemis partner space agencies have to know how to keep them safe. An important part of that is simulating the conditions on the Moon and Mars.
One of the most iconic events in history is Apollo 11 landing on the lunar surface. During the descent, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin are heard relaying commands and data back and forth to mission control across 385,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) of outer space as the lunar module “Eagle” slowly inched its way into the history books.
In the final moments before touchdown, Aldrin can be heard saying, “Picking up some dust”, followed by large dust clouds shooting outward from underneath from the spacecraft as the exhaust plumes interacted with the lunar surface, more commonly known as brownout or brownout effect. This significantly reduced the visibility for Armstrong and Aldrin as they landed, and while they successfully touched down on the Moon, future astronauts might not be so lucky.
Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to send the first astronauts to the Moon in over fifty years. Before the decade is over, this program aims to establish the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” The European Space Agency (ESA) also has big plans, which include the creation of a Moon Village that will serve as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS). China and Roscosmos also came together in June 2021 to announce that they would build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the lunar south pole.
In all cases, space agencies plan to harvest local resources to meet their construction and long-term needs – a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Based on samples returned by the fifth mission of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-5), a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) identified indigenous glass fibers for the first time. According to a paper they authored, these fibers were formed by past impacts in the region and could be an ideal building material for future lunar bases.
NASA has a long history of crowdsourcing solutions, seeking input from the public, entrepreneurs, and citizen scientists. Currently, the agency is tasked with preparing for the long-awaited return to the Moon (the Artemis Program) and addressing the growing problem of Climate Change. The former entails all manner of requirements, from launch vehicles and human-rated spacecraft to logistical concerns and payload services. The latter calls for advances in climate science, Earth observation, and high-quality data collection.
To enlist the help of entrepreneurs in addressing these challenges, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has once again teamed up with the world-leading crowdsourcing platform HeroX to launch the NASA Entrepreneurs Challenge. With a total prize purse of $1,000,000, NASA is looking for ideas to develop and commercialize state-of-the-art technology and data usage that advances lunar exploration and climate science. The challenge launched on April 10th and will run until November 29th, after which the winners will be invited to a live pitch event hosted at the Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo in Washington, D.C.
NASA recently announced the astronauts that will make up the Artemis II crew. This mission will see the four-person crew conduct a circumlunar flight, similar to what the uncrewed Artemis I mission performed, and return to Earth. This mission will pave the way for the long-awaited return to the Moon in 2025, where four astronauts will fly to the Moon, and two (“the first woman and first person of color“) will land on the surface using the Starship HLS. These missions are part of NASA’s plan to establish a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.”
As NASA has emphasized for over a decade, the Artemis Program is part of their “Moon to Mars” mission architecture. On Tuesday, April 18th, NASA released the outcomes from its first Architecture Concept Review (ARC 2022), a robust analysis designed to align with its overall mission strategy and define the supporting architecture. This included an Architecture Document and an executive summary that provide a detailed picture of the mission architecture and design process, plus six supporting white papers that addressed some of the biggest questions regarding exploration and architecture.
The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has made considerable progress in recent years with the development of its Long March 5 (CZ-5) rocket and the completion of its Tiangong-3 space station. The agency also turned heads when it announced plans in June 2021 to create an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) that would rival the Artemis Program. On top of all that, China upped the ante when it announced later that month that it also had plans to send crewed missions to Mars by 2033, concurrent with NASA’s plans.
As part of their growing efforts to become a major power in space, which includes human exploration, China recently announced the completion of the first in-orbit test of a Stirling thermoelectric converter. The Shenzou-15 mission crew performed the test aboard Tiangong-3, and it was the first successful verification of the technology in space. This technology is also being investigated by NASA and is considered a technological solution to the challenges of space exploration, especially where long-duration stays and missions to locations in deep space are concerned.