Private companies from Israel and Japan have tried and failed to land spacecraft in recent years. China, meanwhile, landed in 2019 and again in 2020 and is looking to send astronauts there by 2030. NASA is working on its own lunar campaign through its Artemis program, which aims to build infrastructure on and around of the moon in the long term. All of this sparked a kind of moon race, reminiscent of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, though very different in scope and focus and with many more competitors.
Today, the goal is not so much proving the superiority of one political system over another, but a race to a physical location, the south pole of the moon, where water in the form of ice sits in permanently shadowed craters. Being able to access this ice is vital to any human settlement, not only because water is essential to sustaining life, but because its components, hydrogen and oxygen, can be used as rocket fuel, making potentially from the moon a gas station in space and a stepping stone to other parts of the solar system.
With the United States “defining the Artemis strategy, we really made the moon a critical part of the strategy, and so in doing that, I think the whole world listened,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, former chief of the NASA science mission directorate. “What you’re seeing is really that the lunar environment is becoming a destination and a national imperative for many countries. I’m not surprised there’s been such interest.
Over the next decade, NASA has estimated that human activity on and near the moon “will equal or exceed anything that has happened in this region since the start of the space age in 1957.” according to a White House statement late last year, which outlined a plan to coordinate science efforts around the moon.
Matthew Daniels, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during a presentation in June that this level of activity could grow to as many as 150 missions over the next decade. And that, he said, “is a new situation for us. Much of the world is expressing interest in going to the moon. He added: “A subset of these countries express a credible intention to remain or create the beginning of an enduring presence on the moon.”
For Russia, its landing, known as Luna-25, would mark its first moon landing attempt in 47 years. It is a way for the country to assert itself in a global space race and to demonstrate that it is still a player despite a withering of its space program since the Soviet era. Its spacecraft, carrying science payloads, is expected to land as early as Monday. “All research results will be transferred to Earth,” Yuri Borisov, head of Russia’s space agency, told state television. “We are interested in the presence of water, as well as many other experiments related to the study of the soil, the site.”
For India, which is also trying to boost its space ambitions, its Chandrayaan-3 mission is a chance to redeem itself after a failed moon landing attempt in 2019. If all goes according to plan, its spacecraft should land on Wednesday. The efforts follow attempts by private companies from Japan this year and Israel in 2019, both of which crashed, illustrating the difficulty of landing on Earth’s airless and forbidden neighbor, some 240,000 miles away. of the.
China, America’s biggest rival in space, has had a steady and largely successful lunar campaign in recent years. In 2019, it became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, where its rover continues to operate. In 2020 he returned to the lunar surface, seizing samples for scientific research which were returned to Earth. She also assembled a space station in low Earth orbit and landed a rover on Mars.
Then, of course, there is NASA. Last year, he kicked off his Artemis campaign by flying his Orion spacecraft, unmanned, around the moon. Next year, he is planning a similar mission, but with four astronauts in the capsule. Before that, he is planning a number of robotic missions, the first of which could take place by the end of this year, when two companies are to send spacecraft to the lunar surface with the aim of becoming the first commercial companies to do so. TO DO.
Working under a contract with NASA, Houston-based Intuitive Machines moved its landing site to the South Pole this year, a decision NASA said “was based on a need to know more about the terrain and communications near the lunar south pole, which is expected to be one of the best locations for a sustained human presence on the moon.
The mission is to be launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX as early as November. Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company, also aims to send a lander equipped with science payloads to the lunar surface later this year. It, too, is under contract with NASA and is to be launched on United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.
After decades of little progress in its goals of human deep space exploration, NASA is now focused on a return to the Moon and is starting to spend real money. He awarded multi-billion dollar contracts to SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to develop spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the moon. Blue Origin also won a contract worth more than $34 million to build solar cells and transmission cables from lunar regolith, the geological term for rock and dirt. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
NASA is also working to build a space station, called Gateway, which would stay in orbit around the moon and serve as a staging point for astronauts and supplies. The enduring focus on the moon is a significant shift for the space agency, which has been given various directions and priorities that change with each presidential administration.
In the decades since the end of the Apollo program, the space agency has been headed to the Moon, then to Mars and an asteroid, then back to the Moon. But the Artemis program, born under the Trump administration, has been embraced wholeheartedly by the Biden administration. It has bipartisan support in Congress, which is keen to uphold NASA’s commitment to put the first woman and person of color on the moon.
Another driving factor is that the Trump and Biden administrations have said the United States is in a space race with China and is particularly concerned about its lunar ambitions. In an interview with The Post last year, Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, said she was concerned about how China might behave on the moon, especially when mining resources, such as water ice. “Does this make me nervous?” she says. “Yes, especially with China.”
It is not known how others will also act. To encourage transparency, NASA and the State Department created a program called the Artemis Accords, a legal framework that establishes rules for the peaceful use of space and governs behavior on the surface of the moon. . So far, nearly 30 countries have signed on and would be mandated to adhere to a set of rules, such as sharing scientific findings publicly and creating “safe zones” where nations can work undisturbed on the surface. lunar. India is a signatory and joined in June. But Russia is not, and neither is China, which also aims to establish a presence on the lunar south pole.
This raises questions about how they might behave on the moon. “Are people going to be open and transparent about what they’re doing?” said Scott Pace, former executive secretary of the National Space Council and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He said signatories to the Artemis Accords should provide details of their missions and plans: “Where are they going? What if there are breakdowns? Scientific data? I mean, that’s the kind of openness we want to encourage, and the Artemis Accords will be a good model for others to follow.
Still, he said, there could be benefits to having more activity on the lunar surface. “More and more countries can go to the moon, land on the moon, not only does it build capacity and skills,” he said, “it makes people feel comfortable working together and builds the scientific community”.
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