Before the end of this decade, NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But this time, through the Artemis Program, it won’t be a “footprints and flags” affair. With other space agencies and commercial partners, the long-term aim is to create the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” If all goes according to plan, multiple space agencies will have established bases around the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which will pave the way for lunar industries and tourism.
For humans to live, work, and conduct various activities on the Moon, strategies are needed to deal with all the hazards – not the least of which is lunar regolith (or “moondust”). As the Apollo astronauts learned, moondust is jagged, sticks to everything, and can cause significant wear on astronaut suits, equipment, vehicles, and health. In a new study by a team of Texas A&M engineers, regolith also poses a collision hazard when kicked up by rocket plumes. Given the many spacecraft and landers that will be delivering crews and cargo to the Moon in the near future, this is one hazard that merits close attention!
The Apollo Program delivered 12 American astronauts to the surface of the Moon. But that program ended in 1972, and since then, no human beings have visited. But Artemis will change that. And instead of just visiting the Moon, Artemis’ aim is to establish a longer-term presence on the Moon. That requires more complexity than Apollo did. Astronauts will need to transfer between vehicles.
All of that activity requires a reliable spacecraft docking system.
Through the Artemis Program, NASA intends to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But this time, they intend to stay and establish a lunar base and other infrastructure by the end of the decade that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” To accomplish this, NASA is enlisting the help of fellow space agencies, commercial partners, and academic institutions to create the necessary mission elements – these range from the launch systems, spacecraft, and human landing systems to the delivery of payloads.
As NASA continues to ramp up efforts for its Artemis program, which has the goal of landing the first woman and person of color on the lunar surface, two NASA astronauts recently conducted training with a replica of SpaceX’s Starship human landing system (HLS), albeit on a much smaller scale. Given that Starship is 50 meters (160 feet) tall, and the crew quarters are located near the top of Starship, the HLS will need an elevator with a basket to transport crew and supplies from the crew quarters down to the surface. The purpose of this training is to familiarize astronauts with all aspects of this system, including elevator and gate controls and latches, along with how the astronauts perform these tasks in their bulky astronaut suits, which both astronauts wore during the training.
For almost half a century, the term “Anthropocene” has been informally used to describe the current geological epoch. The term acknowledges how human agency has become the most significant factor when it comes to changes in Earth’s geology, landscape, ecosystems, and climate. According to a new study by a team of geologists and anthropologists, this same term should be extended to the Moon in recognition of humanity’s exploration (starting in the mid-20th century) and the growing impact our activities will have on the Moon’s geology and the landscape in the near future.
With NASA gearing up to send humans back to the Moon in the next few years with the Artemis missions with the goal of establishing a permanent outpost at the lunar south pole, nations are making efforts to contribute to Artemis and a permanent presence on our nearest celestial neighbor. Recently, the Italian Space Agency, formally known as Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), has taken steps to establish the first permanent outpost on the lunar surface, known simply as the Multi-Purpose Habitat (MPH). This endeavor was officially kicked by the ASI signing a contract with the French-based aerospace company, Thales Alenia Space, who specializes in space-based systems, including ground segments and satellites used for both Earth observation and space exploration.
After months of waiting, SpaceX made its second attempt at an orbital flight this past Saturday (November 18th). During their previous attempt, which occurred back in April, a fully-stacked Starship (SN24) and Super Heavy (BN7) prototypes managed to make it off the landing pad and reach an altitude of about 40 km (25 miles) above sea level. Unfortunately, the SN24 failed to separate from the BN7 booster a few minutes into the flight, causing the vehicle to fall into an uncontrolled tumble and forcing the ground teams to detonate the onboard charges.
Things went better this time as the SN25 and BN9 prototypes took off at about 7:00 AM local time (8:00 AM EDT; 05:00 AM PDT) from the Starbase launch complex. The SN25 successfully separated from its booster two minutes and fifty seconds later – at an altitude of 70 km (43 mi) – and reached an altitude of about 148 kilometers (92 miles), just shy of SpaceX’s goal of 150 km (~93 mi). However, the booster stage was lost about 30 seconds after separation, exploding over the Gulf of Mexico. The SN25 also exploded about eight minutes into the flight, reportedly because its flight termination system was activated.
NASA and aerospace company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, have successfully completed qualification testing of the Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS), which is a 12-kilowatt, solar electric propulsion (SEP) engine being built for use for long-term space missions to the Moon and beyond, and AEPS is being touted as the most powerful electric propulsion—also called ion propulsion—thruster currently being manufactured. For context, 12 kilowatts are enough to power more than 1,330 LED light bulbs, and the success of these qualification tests come after NASA announced the beginning of qualification testing in July.
Every year, NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge invites student innovators to build and demonstrate concepts that can benefit future human missions to the Moon and beyond. This year’s theme is “Inflatable Systems for Lunar Operations,” which could greatly reduce the mass and stowed volume of payloads sent to the Moon. This is critical for the Artemis Program as it returns astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era over fifty years ago. It will also reduce the costs of sending payloads to the Moon, Mars, and other deep-space destinations.
As always, what we know about China’s plans for space exploration is limited to snippets of news, public statements, and the occasional video, which are the direct result of state-controlled media and tight secrecy regarding the country’s space program. The latest is a bootleg video that recently appeared online, which shows a video presentation that provides some insight into China’s long-term plans for crewed lunar exploration. The video is captioned with the words “China’s lunar space station and development of lunar molten cave base plan,” and it certainly lives up to that description!