Exploration of Earth’s satellites is back in vogue. In the coming years, several space agencies will participate in missions to test new technologies that will enable humans to return to lunar soil.
Lunar missions: a brief history
It has been 50 years since an astronaut set foot on the Moon. It was 1972, and the Apollo 17 mission carrying astronauts Ronald Evans, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed on the surface of our satellite. Thanks to the rover’s use for the first time, their exploration extended for about 30 km, collecting 110 kg of lunar material. After 75 hours, they returned to the orbiting spacecraft. The Apollo 17 mission closed human exploration of the Moon: the United States had won the race with the USSR, and the American public had lost interest in exploring the celestial body.
The two superpowers at the time had invested billions of economic resources in a war for technological supremacy by achieving achievements and firsts on both sides that were unthinkable. After the last Russian mission in 1976, LUNA 24, which saw the delivery of a soft-landing lander, exploration resumed in 1990 when the Japanese Hiten mission was launched to test new technologies for future lunar and interplanetary travel. Renewed interest in Moon exploration was confirmed in 1994 by NASA’s Clementine mission. The probe, mapping the lunar surface, made an important discovery. It detected the presence of frozen water at the bottom of craters near the Moon’s south pole. Clues were later confirmed by India’s 2019 Chandrayaan-2 mission.
This fundamental discovery has rekindled NASA’s interest in the celestial body. The presence of water and volatile gases would solve some logistical problems related to extended stays on the planet and facilitate the production of fuels for future missions to Mars.
A new history
The year 2022 will be pivotal for space programs aiming to return humans to the Moon. Because of delays due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, 10 missions were on the calendar this year, including landers, orbiters and rovers. Never so many in a single year. The preponderance of launches made with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher emerges, but not only that. In 2022, lunar missions will also benefit from some of the solutions developed by the New Space Economy for Earth orbit. This is an essential sign of the development of a very innovative sector with ample room for growth and job opportunities in the near future.
On board, the launchers, there will be no astronauts but CubeSats, orbiters, probes and vehicles. Most of these missions aim to test technologies for future exploration of our satellite. Some are owned by NASA, others by start-ups and space agencies, which among other things, will study radiation levels on the lunar surface, test new types of propulsion, collect thermographic information on the lunar surface, map hydrogen inside craters near the lunar south pole and ice concentration. The IM-1 mission will be the first of the Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS), the program operated by NASA to contract transportation services capable of sending cargo, landers and rovers to the Moon. Its goal is researching lunar resources and testing prototypes to support the Artemis program, arguably the most ambitious project to return to our satellite.
The Artemis program
The Artemis program involves the long-term exploration of the Moon, preparation for deeper space exploration and future missions that will take humans to Mars. This name was not chosen randomly: Artemis in Greek mythology was Apollo’s twin sister and the goddess of the Moon. The program’s first mission will be used to test the new non-reusable orbital heavy launch system. Called the Space Launch System, it will serve as the primary launch vehicle for Orion, the new human-crewed spacecraft similar to the one used for the Apollo missions but larger and with much more technology on board. SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, capable of carrying a 95-ton payload.
The evolution of these rockets will be critical in the future for space exploration and eventual human-crewed flights to Mars. Currently, the Orion spacecraft is the only spacecraft in the world capable of manned spaceflight in the vicinity of the Moon and a high-speed return to Earth. Orion will be tested unmanned on the first mission of the Artemis Program, scheduled for April this year but postponed due to a technical problem.
The Program has 3 phases. The first, unmanned flight testing, involves sending the Orion vehicle into Lunar orbit following a reverse path to the Apollo missions and returning to Earth. Artemis II planned for 2024 will take astronauts into lunar orbit on the Orion spacecraft. Artemis III will be the first mission to return humans to lunar soil since Apollo 17. It will be the first time for a woman and an African American astronaut. The lunch is scheduled for 2025.
A self-sustaining presence on the Moon
NASA sees Artemis as the first step toward the long-term goal of establishing a self-sustaining presence on the Moon, laying the groundwork for private companies to build a lunar economy, and eventually sending humans to Mars. Spending on each launch amounts to $4.1 billion, and overall the program will cost $93 billion, the highest amount ever allocated to NASA. The whole development of the Program, spacecraft and SLS rockets began in 2005. Project Artemis missions are also crucial for carrying commercial payloads, including several CubeSats and landers from research centers and private companies that will provide information relevant to future missions to the Moon.
In addition, a long stay on the planet will allow for in-depth study of the characteristics of our satellite, testing solutions to enable stable missions to Mars, and verifying the consistency of water ice below the surface of the poles and ways to exploit it. Commercial interest in space missions is high, and there are several companies and start-ups that through the Artemis project will have the opportunity to develop solutions to support NASA in its missions.
Lunar missions in China and Russia
A strong push to accelerate the Artemis program was given, by the U.S. government, after declarations by China and Russia that they would return their astronauts to the Moon and establish bases there. Russia resumed its lunar program with the LUNA 25 project, which planned to send a lander by 2022, the first since LUNA 24 in 1976, but the mission was delayed due to the war in Ukraine. In 2006 China declared plans to send China’s first taikonaut to the moon in 2024. Chinese space technology has taken a major leap forward and has succeeded in making its own family of launchers. The first mission of its lunar project was the unmanned Chang’e 1 probe. In January 2019, China’s Chang’e 4 robotic mission became the first ever to make a soft landing on the far side of the moon.
In December 2020, Chang’e 5 brought pristine lunar samples back to Earth for the first time in 45 years, since Russia’s 1976 LUNA 24 mission. China will “continue studies and research for a human lunar landing, develop next-generation manned spacecraft, and investigate key technologies to lay the foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space,” the white paper states. To a lesser extent, space agencies from Europe and other countries plan to send landers and rovers to the Moon to participate in joint projects. Two missions from Japan are planned by 2022: in October Hakuto R mission 1 by the private company Ispace; a commercial lander carrying payloads from other companies; SLIM by the Japanese space agency, a lightweight lander to study new lunar landing technology.
India, with the third phase of its space program, Chandrayaan 3, will send landers and rovers to test lunar landings and lunar overnights. In August, the Korean agency’s first lunar mission will send a small orbiter and do studies on lunar geology. It will also, in collaboration with NASA, be equipped with a shadow came to detect possible ice deposits on the moon. High missions are also planned for the agencies of Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
It is a very intense phase of lunar exploration. China’s entry has reopened a race for technological supremacy that seemed dormant but now takes on significance beyond symbolic value. Major economic interests are at stake, and the major Chinese companies involved are all government-owned. The new space economy is a field with a very high potential for development. There are military and defence interests related to in-orbit satellites and communications; just think of the role played by Starlink satellites in the war in Ukraine.
The possibility of exploiting rare gases and metals found on the lunar surface. A particular feature of future lunar exploration will be the involvement of smaller countries and agencies, a sign that even missions to our satellite are becoming more affordable and technologically easier. Some missions, such as Intuitive Machines’ IM-2, will be launched in rideshare, that is, sharing the launcher with other satellites. Finally, commercial interest in space and Moon travel will increasingly involve private companies and start-ups offering their services and solutions, not only for means of transfer, currently SpaceX’s Falcon 9 being the most widely used launcher, but also for means and infrastructure to be used on the Moon for a long time.
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