NASA's Moon Mission 2024: Artemis will explore uncharted polar region, set the stage for future explorations, says scientist
NASA zeroed in on the south pole as its landing site after the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)—a robotic spacecraft circling Moon—provided a wealth of information on the region
On September 1959, the Soviet Union’s spacecraft touched the surface of the Moon for the first time. Men arrived ten years later through NASA’s Apollo Mission.
Now, after a 50-year-old hiatus, NASA has announced that astronauts will return to Moon again in 2024.
The mission is named Artemis—after the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. And if everything works according to plan, the first woman and the next man will travel about a quarter million miles to set foot on the Earth’s natural satellite—except that, this time, the mission is more ambitious than ever.
The upcoming 2024 trip to the Moon could set the stage for future exploration of the solar system, including Mars.
A trip to the Moon could also help astronauts find water—a resource that future explorers could tap into when they venture deep into space.
The current mission is not going to be an easy one. Astronauts may set up a base for weeks. In contrast, the Apollo Mission saw astronauts spending just a few hours on the Moon.
While Apollo’s landing site is well-explored, Artemis will land in a region that has thus far been uncharted: the South pole.
“By exploring an as-yet unexplored region of the Moon, the south pole, we will learn much about the history of the Moon, and the Solar System, as we know the history of the inner Solar System is recorded in the lunar surface.” Dr. Noah Edward Petro, Project Scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
The solar system's past is believed to be recorded on the Moon's polar surface, which is dotted with numerous craters. Astronauts believe that because the south pole’s craters have been untouched by sunlight for billions of years, thereby preserving the history of the solar system.
NASA zeroed in on the south pole as its landing site after the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)—a robotic spacecraft circling Moon—provided a wealth of information on the region.
“LRO is paving the way for our return to the lunar surface! We have been collecting data for over 10 years now, including data that are critical for finding safe, scientifically interesting landing sites for future explorers,” Dr Petro told MEAWW.
But reaching the south pole is important for another reason, water. “The south pole contains hydrogen and possibly water ice, a resource we would use to enable ongoing exploration deeper into the Solar System and on to Mars,” Dr. Petro told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
Finding water on the Moon is exciting for explorers who want to venture deep into space. Water could help them quench their thirst, grow plants as food and create life’s fuel, oxygen, by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Most importantly, they can use water to power spacecrafts for travel beyond the Moon: fusing hydrogen and oxygen back together can create rocket fuel and propellant.
To bring all of this to reality, NASA is developing a very powerful rocket. Named Space Launch System (SLS), it will be used to launch the Orion spacecraft that will take humans farther into space.
“Astronauts will dock Orion at the Gateway where they will live and work around the moon. The crew will take expeditions from the Gateway to the surface of the Moon in a new human landing system before returning to the orbital outpost. The crew will ultimately return to Earth aboard Orion,” says NASA in a statement.
The mission could boost international partnerships. The governments of Canada, Australia, and Japan have already come on board, earlier this year. “I think there’s lots of room on the Moon and we need all of our international partners to go with us to the Moon,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during the Heads of Agencies news conference on October 21.
For all its exciting prospects, astronauts will still have to brave Moon’s harsh conditions: from lunar dust and radiation to a host of other health issues.
Away from the Earth’s protective shielding, astronauts stand exposed to fine particles of silica on the moon’s surface called the lunar dust, which can cut like glass and smell like gunpowder, describe experts.
Even during the Apollo missions, the dust clung to astronauts’ spacesuits, making their eyes water and throats sore. Prolonged exposure to the dust could make astronauts prone to more severe effects, like bronchitis or cancer, according to a study.
Astronauts have another risk to battle: radiation stemming from cosmic rays and solar flares.
According to scientists, protective vests from an Israeli-American start-up company called Stemrad could be a gamechanger in tackling radiation. Next year, NASA will be testing the efficacy of these vests on two phantom dummies, created to mimic female torsos.
The dummies—Helga and Zohar—are fitted with more than 5,600 sensors each. These will be able to measure exposure to space radiation in the "skin" of the dummies all the way down to their "internal organs."
Helga and Zohar will be a part of NASA’s test mission: Artemis 1. The dummies will be blasted off on the Orion spacecraft—assigned to take astronauts to the moon in 2024 . This crew-less mission will make a flyby of the moon before returning to Earth. When the dummies return, NASA can examine the efficacy of the StemRad vests, providing valuable information on how to protect future crews.
Risks posed by radiation and lunar dust are also being studied by NASA’s Human Research Program scientists and engineers. “NASA’s Human Research Program continues to evaluate the health of astronauts on the space station during the more than 19 years of continuous human presence,” says Dr. Petro.
To understand what happens on long-term missions, NASA monitors astronauts who have traveled to space. They are currently studying how astronauts Christina Koch and Andrew Morgan respond to space environment, which could feed into how NASA can maintain crew health during human expeditions to the Moon and Mars.
With the deadline fast approaching, the Artemis mission is crucial to the US. It will establish American leadership and a strategic presence at the Moon while expanding our US global economic impact, Dr Petro told MEAWW.