NASA says its VIPER rover will head for the western edge of Nobile Crater near the moon’s south pole in 2023, targeting a region where shadowed craters are cold enough for water ice to exist, but where enough of the sun’s rays reach to keep the solar-powered robot going.
Today’s announcement provides a focus for a mission that’s meant to blaze a trail for Artemis astronauts who are scheduled to land on the lunar surface by as early as 2024, and for a sustainable lunar settlement that could take shape by the end of the decade.
“Once it’s on the surface, it will search for ice and other resources on and below the lunar surface that could one day be used and harvested for long-term human exploration of the moon,” Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a teleconference.
The fight over who gets to take the Artemis astronauts back to the Moon continues! It all began when NASA announced that they had awarded the contract for its Human Landing System (HLS), the reusable lunar lander that would ferry the Artemis IIIastronauts to the lunar surface. This decision did not sit well with the other two finalists, Blue Origin and Dynetics, who appealed the decision because NASA was showing “favoritism.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected these appeals, which has prompted Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos to bring out the big guns. In addition to filing a lawsuit in federal court and lobbying Congress, they have also waged a public relations war against SpaceX itself, calling their safety record and into question. In response, Elon Musk took to Twitter to address Blue Origin’s claims and set the record straight.
In March of 2019, NASA was directed to develop all the necessary equipment and planning to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024. This plan, officially named Project Artemis, was part of an agency-wide shakeup designed to ensure that the long-awaited return to the Moon takes place sooner than NASA had originally planned. In accordance with their “Moon to Mars” framework, NASA hoped to assemble the Lunar Gateway first, then land astronauts on the surface by 2028.
Unfortunately, this ambitious proposal has led to all sorts of complications and forced NASA to shift certain priorities. Most recently, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) submitted a report that indicated that their new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits will not be ready in time. The resulting delay has prompted Elon Musk to offer the services of SpaceX to expedite the spacesuit’s development and get Artemis back on schedule.
In a few years, NASA will be sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era (1969-1972). As part of the Artemis Program, the long-term goal is to create the necessary infrastructure for a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” The opportunities this will present for lunar research are profound and will likely result in new discoveries about the formation and evolution of the Moon.
In particular, scientists are hoping to investigate the long-standing mystery of whether or not the Moon had a magnetosphere. In anticipation of what scientists might find, an international team of geophysicists led by the University of Rochester examined samples of lunar material brought back by the Apollo astronauts. Based on the composition of these samples, the team determined that the Moon’s dynamo was short-lived.
Blue Origin has been busy lately. They launched their founder, Jeff Bezos, into space and put a bid in on NASA’s new Lunar Lander project. While SpaceX won that contract back in April, Blue Origin has continued to fight for their right to supply the space agency with an alternative lander. And recently, their not-quite-an-astronaut chief had added another fuel to the fire by offering to take $2 billion off the price tag of a Blue Origin lander.
In the coming years, multiple space agencies will be sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the closing days of the Apollo Program. For NASA, this will represent the long-awaited “return to the Moon,” while every other space agency will see it as a tremendous step for their space programs. One thing they all have in common is that this time around, the goal is to build the necessary infrastructure that will allow for a long-term human presence.
However, amid all the excitement of this approaching moment in history are concerns about the lack of an international framework that will ensure our efforts are for the sake of “for all humankind.” Whereas NASA is seeking partners for its Artemis Program through bilateral agreements, Russia and China are pursuing an agreement of their own. They call it the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), and they too are looking for partners in this endeavor.
In October of 2024, NASA’s Artemis Program will return astronauts to the surface of the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. In the years and decades that follow, multiple space agencies and commercial partners plan to build the infrastructure that will allow for a long-term human presence on the Moon. An important part of these efforts involves building habitats that can ensure the astronauts’ health, safety, and comfort in the extreme lunar environment.
This challenge has inspired architects and designers from all over the world to create innovative and novel ideas for lunar living. One of these is the Lunar Lantern, a base concept developed by ICON (an advanced construction company based in Austin, Texas) as part of a NASA-supported project to build a sustainable outpost on the Moon. This proposal is currently being showcased as part of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition at the La Biennale di Venezia museum in Venice, Italy.
Between now and the end of this decade, multiple space agencies plan to send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But whereas Apollo was a “footprints and flags” affair, the current proposals for lunar exploration call for the creation of infrastructure that allow for a sustained human presence there. In addition to NASA’s Artemis Program, the ESA is also working on a plan to create an “International Moon Village.”
For years, the ESA has released teasers as to what this “successor to the International Space Station” (ISS) might look like, the latest of which is on display at the La Biennale di Venezia museum in Venice. As part of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) showcased their design (with technical support from the ESA) for a semi-inflatable lunar habitat that could facilitate long-term lunar settlement.
A number of missions are destined for the Moon before this decade is over. In addition to the Artemis Program, the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Agency (CNSA), Roscosmos, and other space agencies have some ambitious plans of their own. These include sending robotic missions to characterize the local environment, scout out resources, and pave the way for permanent human outposts.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) also some very interesting lunar missions in mind. In addition to partnering with NASA on the Artemis Program and helping to create the Lunar Gateway, JAXA has the radical idea to send a transforming rover to the Moon. The data this rover collects will be used to inform the design of a pressurized rover that will allow for a sustained human presence on the Moon.
In July 1999, the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) was created with the purpose of representing the “Space Generation” to the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). For this non-governmental organization and professional network, this would consist of bringing the “views of students and young space professionals to the United Nations (UN), space industry and other organizations”.
Given the importance of the Moon for all of our future space exploration goals, SGAC created an interdisciplinary group in June of 2020 that is focused on lunar policy. Known as the Effective and Adaptive Governance for a Lunar Ecosystem (E.A.G.L.E.), this group of 14 young space professionals is dedicated to ensuring that the younger generation has a voice when it comes to the development of regulations for lunar policy.
On May 12th, 2021, the SGAC released the report prepared by the EAGLE group, which outlines their ideas and proposals for how we can ensure that the regulations governing lunar activities are inclusive, effective, and adaptative. It’s known as the Lunar Governance Report, a document that will be presented during the 2021 meetings of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).