Between now and the mid-2030s, multiple space agencies hope to send crewed missions to the Moon. of These plans all involve establishing bases around the Moon’s southern polar region, including the Artemis Base Camp and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). These facilities will enable a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development,” according to the NASA Artemis Program mission statement. In all cases, plans for building facilities on the surface call for a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), where local resources are used as building materials.
This presents a bit of a problem since not all lunar soil (regolith) is well-suited for construction. Much like engineering and construction projects here on Earth, builders need to know what type of soil they are building on and if it can be used to make concrete. In a recent study, planetary scientist Kevin M. Cannon proposed a lunar soil classification scheme for space resource utilization. This could have significant implications for future missions to the Moon, where it would help inform the construction of bases, habitats, and other facilities based on soil type and location.
Last May, as part of the nation’s growing presence in space, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) announced that it had established a Human Lunar Space Program that would send crewed missions to the Moon and culminate in the creation of a lunar base. This came shortly after China and Russia announced that they would be collaborating on future lunar missions, which included the creation of a base around the southern polar region. In June 2022, they announced that this base would be named the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and released a guide explaining how international partners could join.
On Thursday, August 31st, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) released artists’ renderings of their next-generation spacecraft and lunar lander. The spacecraft will consist of two sections, a reentry capsule, and a service section, while the lunar lander will include a landing section and a propulsion section. According to a statement released by the Agency, these vehicles will deliver crews to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and allow China to send crewed missions to the lunar surface. The release of these images confirms what has been suspected for some time: that China fully intends to land taikonauts on the Moon before 2030.
On August 10th, 2023, Roscosmos’ Luna-25 mission launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome atop a Soyuz-2 rocket. This mission was the first lunar mission to launch from Russia since the 1970s and would be the first Russian lander to touch down in the South-Pole Aitken basin. This mission was part of Roscosmos’ partnership with China to develop an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the region by 2030. Unfortunately, Russia announced on Saturday, August 19th, that the lander spun out of control and crashed into the surface.
As of 2019, China began conducting preliminary studies for a crewed lunar mission that would take place by the 2030s. Two years later, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and Roscosmos announced a partnership to create an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The proposed timeline for development came down to three phases: Reconnaissance (2021-25), Construction (2025-35), and Utilization (2035-onward). Earlier this year, China announced that its space agency would send the first crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2030.
On July 12th, during the 9th China (International) Commercial Aerospace Forum in Wuhan, China, Chinese officials offered additional information about its crewed lunar exploration program. This included Deputy chief engineer Zhang Hailian of the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) office announcing the preliminary plan for China’s first crewed lunar mission. As Zhang illustrated with a series of animations, the mission will consist of two carrier rockets launching all the necessary elements to the Moon, which will then rendezvous in orbit and land on the surface to conduct science operations.
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.
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.
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.
In June 2021, China announced it was partnering with Russia to launch a lunar exploration program that would rival NASA’s Artemis Program. This program would include robotic landers, orbiters, and crewed missions that would culminate with the creation of an outpost around the Moon’s southern polar region – the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). While the details are still scant, periodic updates have provided a “big-picture” idea of what this lunar outpost will look like.
Case in point, at a recent national space conference, a team of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) presented a list of objectives for the ILRS. According to China Science Daily, these objectives will include Moon-based astronomy, Earth observation, and lunar in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). In addition, the CAS scientists indicated that China plans to establish a basic model for a lunar research station based on two planned exploration missions by 2028, which will subsequently expand into an international base.
For years, China has been dropping hints about its Long March 9 (CZ-9) rocket, a three-stage super-heavy variant of the Long March family. This launch vehicle will reportedly be capable of transporting up to 150,000 kg (165 tons) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 54,000 kg (59.5 tons) to a trans-lunar injection. On March 2nd, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) announced (via the Chinese social media platform Weixin) that it had finished building the first propellant tank for the CZ-9.
The news was accompanied by pictures that showed the finished tank and the many components that went into making it – and they are massive!
There are many paths to the Moon, and not all of them go through the Lunar Gateway. This week, the heads of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) signed an agreement to cooperate on a Lunar research station of their own.