As NASA prepares to return to the Moon by 2024 as part of its Artemis program, the agency is focusing its efforts on exploring the Moon’s polar regions. These are areas of the Moon which seem to have a lot of water mixed in with the regolith.
The history of the Moon is a tale told by geology, apparent in its rocks, craters, and other surface features. For centuries, astronomers have studied the Moon from afar and for the past few decades, it has been visited by countless robotic missions. Between 1969 and 1972, a total of twelve astronauts walked on its surface, conducted lunar science, and brought samples of lunar rock back to Earth for study.
We tend to think of the moon as the archetypal “dead” world. Not only is there no life, almost all its volcanic activity died out billions of years ago. Even the youngest lunar lava is old enough to have become scarred by numerous impact craters that have been collected over the aeons as cosmic debris crashed into the ground.
The Moon is shrinking as its interior cools, getting more than about 150 feet (50 meters) skinnier over the last several hundred million years. Just as a grape wrinkles as it shrinks down to a raisin, the Moon gets wrinkles as it shrinks. Unlike the flexible skin on a grape, the Moon’s surface crust is brittle, so it breaks as the Moon shrinks, forming “thrust faults” where one section of crust is pushed up over a neighboring part.
Nearly 50 years since man first walked on the moon, the human race is once more pushing forward with attempts to land on the Earth’s satellite. This year alone, China has landed a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon, while India is close to landing a lunar vehicle, and Israel continues its mission to touch down on the surface, despite the crash of its recent venture. NASA meanwhile has announced it wants to send astronauts to the moon’s south pole by 2024.
If you were transported to the Moon this very instant, you would surely and rapidly die. That’s because there’s no atmosphere, the surface temperature varies from a roasting 130 degrees Celsius (266 F) to a bone-chilling minus 170 C (minus 274 F). If the lack of air or horrific heat or cold don’t kill you then micrometeorite bombardment or solar radiation will. By all accounts, the Moon is not a hospitable place to be.
The last screw is tightened and a private Moon lander is packed in the fairing atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It took eight years to get there, plus significant dedication by a small group of scientists and engineers building Israel’s first machine to leave Earth’s orbit. Now, the highly anticipated moment is here: a shot at the first private Moon landing, and NASA is contributing to the experiment.
The Moon is a fundamental part of Earth’s past and future - an off-world location that may hold valuable resources to support space activity and scientific treasures that may tell us more about our own planet. Americans first walked on its surface almost 50 years ago, but the next wave of lunar exploration will be fundamentally different.
December 24 is the 50th anniversary of Earthrise, arguably one of the most profound images in the history of human culture. When astronaut William Anders photographed a fragile blue sphere set in dark space peeking over the Moon, it changed our perception of our place in space and fueled environmental awareness around the world.
We all know that the time is past due for a Moon base. But the cost of sending everything needed from Earth to build a base is prohibitive. Earth’s gravity well is too deep and too strong to get everything there with rockets. So what’s the solution?
NASA will lead the development of the Gateway, a permanent spaceship orbiting the Moon, to serve as a home base for human and robotic missions to the surface of the Moon and ultimately, Mars. The first orbiting lunar laboratory will be a temporary home and office for astronauts for up to three months at a time, with cargo deliveries likely scheduled when crew are not present.