The world prepares for the second assault on the Moon

If 2021 was a great year for Mars exploration, with the arrival just days apart of NASA’s Perseverance rover, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe, and the Chinese Tianwen-1 orbiter and Zhurong rover, 2022 is going to be , without a doubt, the year of the Moon. Space agencies from five different countries – the US, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the Emirates – and several private companies will send our satellite at least one mission in the coming months. Without a crew, most of them have the objective of testing technological capabilities, developing the ‘muscle’ that will allow a prolonged and sustainable lunar human settlement in the future. Mineral resources could be exploited there and, above all, the first leap could be taken to conquer Mars and, who knows, perhaps other worlds as well.

NASA’s ambitious Artemis program plans to return humans to the Moon in 2025, including the first woman to leave her footprint on the satellite. But before that happens, it will be necessary to carry out a series of tests. The first, called Artemis I, will launch in March from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after several delays due to technological challenges and setbacks from the pandemic. All eyes will be on the gigantic SLS (Space Launch System) rocket, even more powerful than the Saturn 5 of the Apollo program, and the Orion capsule on board, which will fly around the Moon and whose heat shield will withstand around 2,760º C during its re-entry to Earth.

The great SLS will be launched from Florida – NASA
For the general public there is another attraction. In the absence of a human hero, a ‘moonikin’ (from the English ‘Luna’ and ‘mannequin’) will travel in the commander’s seat, a realistic doll that will test the space suit that the future astronauts of the program will use during some key moments

It has been baptized as Arturo Campos, in homage to the Hispanic engineer who helped bring the crew of the crashed Apollo 13 back to Earth safely.

Artemis 1 will rehearse the trajectory that Artemis 2 will carry out in 2024, then with a real crew. And Artemis 3 is expected to make the moon landing a year later. It’s also possible that Starship, the SpaceX ship that will then be used as a lander for astronauts, will try to reach orbit, with no one on board, as early as the middle of this year.

In addition, NASA will also send Capstone, a microwave-sized, less than 25-kilogram CubeSat, in March, which will test a unique elliptical lunar orbit, 1,600 km from one lunar pole in its close pass and 70,000 km from the other pole in its peak every seven days. This orbit is an advantage over circular ones, as it requires less propulsion capacity for spacecraft flying to and from the Moon’s surface. Likewise, it will demonstrate navigation services.

What is learned from Capstone, developed by Rocket Lab in New Zealand, will serve as preparation for Gateway, the future station in permanent orbit around the Moon, in whose construction the European Space Agency (ESA) also participates. When ready, it will serve as a ‘portal’ to our satellite, facilitating the collection of astronauts and supplies from Earth.

“Ultimately, the objective of Artemis is to use the Moon, which we can access relatively easily, as a springboard, an intermediate step to reach Mars and beyond,” explains José Antonio Rodríguez Manfredi, an engineer at the Center for Astrobiology (INTA-CSIC). “We cannot take the gigantic ships that we would need for those distant missions out of Earth orbit, but we can send part of it to the Moon and use its resources to assemble them and, once the ship is built, go out into space with a ‘small’ thrust”, Add.

Another project that will receive world attention is that of Russia, which has spent 45 years without landing anything on the Moon. In July, Luna 25 will ‘shoot’, with a four-legged lander destined to study the South Pole, an area of ​​great scientific interest “because it is believed to have large reserves of frozen water and may be the place where future inhabited colonies will be established” , indicates the astrophysicist and popularizer Juan Ángel Vaquerizo.

The Roscosmos device will analyze the composition of the polar regolith and the plasma and dust components of the exosphere, the lunar atmosphere. A month later, it will be followed by Pathfinder, a South Korean orbiter to help plan future missions to the lunar poles.

“If they succeed, they will take more steps. Countries with little space tradition are starting to also place themselves on the stage. It supposes an economic development strategy, but these missions are also going to increase our scientific knowledge, which for me is more interesting”, says the researcher.

In his opinion, “if in the days of the Cold War reaching the Moon was a titanic effort that meant a victory without shooting, now the strategic and economic interest prevails.” Up there “there are natural resources, such as minerals or helium-3, which with the right infrastructure can be exploited and it is important to be well positioned,” he points out.

Among the countries willing to gain a foothold is also India, which wants to make up for the failure of its first moon landing attempt. In September 2019, Vikram, the lander that traveled alongside an orbiter on the Chandrayaan-2 mission, crashed into the lunar south pole apparently due to a last-minute failure while attempting a soft landing. The probe, lost for two months, contained a small rover that was equally destroyed and India was unable to achieve its dream of becoming the fourth power to place an artifact on the Moon after the US, Russia and China, the only ones they have succeeded. Chandrayaan-3 will try again in the third quarter of this year. It will also have a stationary lander and a rover, and will take advantage of the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter that it did manage to place around the Moon.

In the second half of the year, a Japanese aerospace company called ispace will carry two rovers on Mission 1 (M1), as part of the commercial Hakuto-R program: a two-wheeler built by JAXA to explore the lunar surface and another Emirati, Rashid , four-wheel drive, which will be the first of its kind in the Arab world.

“The future is in space and everyone wants to participate. The countries that can are going to get on that train. In the end, any development that is made ends up having an impact on local industry and science”, says Manfredi. “In some cases, these initiatives have a marked media and propaganda character. Even Turkey and Thailand are considering their own lunar missions in the following years, and so is the Dutch University of Delft », he adds.

Private companies don’t want to miss out on their piece of the pie either. Under the umbrella of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, Houston-based Intuitive Machines plans to soon send a six-legged cylindrical robot named Nova-C to transport payloads to the surface.

The module will deploy a small rover built by Spacebit, a British company. Also for the transport of payloads, Astrobotic Technology, of Pennsylvania, prepares Peregrine, a four-legged lander. He will take Colmena, a Mexican microrover, as his travel companion. Lots of traffic up there.

So much so that Manfredi warns: “As happened in the exploration of Antarctica, this requires a very important effort of international coordination, a legal and ethical framework in which we all understand each other.” Can Spain stay out? A Spanish company, Airbus Crisa, is in charge of the thermal control system of the European Service Module of the Orion spacecraft. Others could join the adventure. For the engineer, “the future national space agency could be useful to coordinate efforts and put us in a good position.”