NASA to return to the moon by 2024
By Owen Wallace
On the 11th of December 2017, the 45th anniversary of the last Apollo landing, “Space Policy Directive 1” was signed into action calling for new lunar missions, with the possibility of further expansion into the solar system in the coming years. It was decided that this program was to be called ‘Artemis’ after the Greek Goddess, who happened to be both the twin sister of Apollo, and the deity of the moon.
With less than a year to go until the launch of Artemis I, what are the scientific implications of the missions? And what sets them apart from other aeronautical projects?
One of the distinguishing features includes the landing site. Artemis III is projected to be the first crewed mission to the lunar south pole. Given that one of the overall goals of the program is to set the foundations of a permanent base on the moon, ice may play a significant role in these ambitions. Not only can it be used to produce breathable oxygen, but scientists have suggested that the hydrogen could be used to make rocket fuel. Given the tremendous price of hauling cargo into space, this could potentially save NASA millions of dollars in the long run.
Artemis III will also be worth keeping an eye on for other reasons. Not only is it the first lunar landing since 1972, but it is also expected to be the first to land a female astronaut on the moon.
What about the new transport system?
When completed, the SLS (Space Launch System) will be the most powerful rocket ever built. Capable of reaching speeds of up to 24500 miles per hour. There are three separate configurations, each with the ability to carry cargo or crew.
The first three Artemis missions will use ‘Block 1’. Giving them the ability to haul up to 27 tonnes of payload into orbits further than that of the moon.
However it should be noted that the solid fuel boosters will not be reusable as many had previously hoped. NASA evaluated the cost recovery, as well as the heightened risk of disaster due to unnoticed damage to be too high, consequently the current system will be single-use only.
How will the private sector be able to help?
Over the past few decades, multiple private aerospace companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have risen to prominence. Nasa plans on utilizing this growing industry in the form of contractual agreements. An example of this is the Human Landing System, for which NASA partnered with multiple private companies, paying a total of $579 million.
This is not the first time NASA has used contractors. Back in May, a SpaceX capsule successfully carried two astronauts to the international space station. At the same time it demonstrated that reusable rockets are possible by landing two falcon-9 boosters back on Earth. Elon Musk, CEO, has his own ambitious plans of landing humans on Mars by 2050, in an entirely private venture.
What’s next for NASA?
In 2028, NASA plans on landing the Lunar Surface Asset on the moon, with the intention of setting up a small lunar habitat. This would be the first semi-permanent settlement outside of Earth, and would mark a substantial milestone in space exploration.
The most likely location for this habitat would be the Shackleton crater. The rims are almost permanently illuminated, and would therefore provide a sustainable source of solar energy. In addition, given its location on the south pole, some of the shadowed regions may provide sources of frozen water, which could be thawed and purified for human consumption.
After the Artemis program is complete, NASA will use the knowledge learned and the technology gained to prepare crewed expeditions to previously unexplored parts of the solar system. The logical first step is Mars, and in 2015 NASA administrator Charles Bolden reaffirmed the agency’s goal to reach the martian surface by the 2030s. However with its ever-turbulent budget, only time will tell if a Mars colony is realistic in the foreseeable future.