Around the Moon’s southern polar region lies the South Pole-Aitken Basin, the single-largest impact basin on the lunar surface. Within this basin, there are numerous permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) that are thought to have trapped water ice over time. These deposits are crucial to future missions like the Artemis Program that will lead to the creation of permanent infrastructure. This water ice will supply crews with a steady source of water for drinking and irrigation and the means for chemically producing oxygen gas and rocket fuel.
For scientists, these PSRs are believed to have emerged when the Moon began migrating away from Earth roughly 2.5 billion years ago. Over time, these regions acted as “cold sinks” and trapped water ice that existed on the lunar surface at the time. However, according to a recent study led by the Planetary Science Institute (PSI), the Moon’s permanently shadowed areas arose less than 2.2 billion years ago and trapped ice even more recently than that. These findings could significantly impact future crewed missions as they indicate that the water ice found in lunar craters could be of more recent origin.
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.
The Moon was geologically active between 3.7 and 2.5 billion years ago, experiencing quakes, volcanic eruptions, and outgassing. Thanks to the Moon being an airless body, evidence of this past has been carefully preserved in the form of extinct volcanoes, lava tubes, and other features. While the Moon has been geologically inert for billions of years, it still experiences small seismic events due to tidal flexing (because of Earth’s gravitational pull) and temperature variations. These latter events happen regularly and are known as “moonquakes.”
Thanks to the Apollo missions, scientists have measured this activity using seismometers placed on the surface. In a recent NASA-funded study, a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) reexamined the seismic data with a machine-learning model. This revealed that moonquakes occur with precise regularity, coinciding with the Sun rising to its peak position in the sky and then slowly setting. In this respect, moonquakes are like a “Lunar Alarm Clock,” which could be useful for future missions and lunar settlers!
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.
India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission delivered its Vikram lander and Pragyan rover to the lunar surface on August 23rd. Now, as the lunar day ends two weeks later, the rover’s mission may be over. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has put Pragyan into sleep mode.
On July 14th, 2023, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched the third mission in its Chandrayaan (“Moon vehicle” in Hindi) lunar exploration program. Earlier this week (Wednesday, August 23rd), the Chandrayaan-3 mission’s Vikram lander touched down on the far side of the Moon, making India the fourth nation in the world to send missions to the lunar surface and the first to land one near the Moon’s south pole region. Shortly after that, the ISRO announced that they had deployed Pragyan, the rover element of the mission, to the surface.
India’s space agency successfully landed their Chandrayaan-3 lander on the lunar surface, becoming the fourth country to touch down on the Moon and the first to land at one of the lunar poles.
The Indian Space Resource Organization’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan-3 launched last month and made a soft landing on the Moon’s south pole at approximately 8:34 a.m. ET on August 23. The mission is set to begin exploring an area of the Moon that is of extreme interest, but Chandrayaan-3 is the first to visit this area in-situ. The lunar south pole is thought to contain water ice that could be a source of oxygen, fuel, and water for future missions, or perhaps even for a future lunar base or colony.
Most of North America gets to see the Moon blot out Antares Thursday night.
The long drought of lunar bright star occultations ends this week, as the Moon meets the bright star Antares. This event is one of the best bright star versus the Moon occultations for 2023, and is a harbinger for a series of new occultations of the star once every pass, as the Moon swings through Scorpius the Scorpion every lunar synodic period or 29.5 days.
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.
Multiple space agencies plan to send astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts to the Moon in the coming years, with the long-term goal of establishing a permanent human presence there. This includes the NASA-led Artemis Program, which aims to create a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development” by the decade’s end. There’s also the competing Russo-Chinese International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) effort to create a series of facilities “on the surface and/or in orbit of the Moon” that will enable lucrative research.
Beyond these government-agency-led programs, there are many companies and non-government organizations (NGOs) hoping to conduct regular trips to the Moon, either for the sake of “lunar tourism” and mining or to build an “International Moon Village” that would act as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS). These plans will require a lot of cargo and freight moving between Earth and the Moon well into the next decade, which is no easy task. To address this, a team of U.S./UK researchers recently released a research paper on the optimum trajectories for traveling between Earth and the Moon.