Multiple nations and private space companies are racing to the Moon.
24th Jan 2024 – NASA’s Peregrine Lunar lander launched a few weeks ago suffered a major failure and crashed landed back on Earth. Japan’s SLIM lander successfully performed a precision landing on the Lunar surface a few days ago but sadly is having power and communication problems – although the Japanese space agency is holding out hope for a restart of the lander’s system despite it landing either on its side or even upside down.
India’s Chandrayaan-3 Moon lander successfully landed in 2023, and China’s Chang’e 4 Moon lander touched down on the far side of the Moon – something not achieved by any nation previously.
Space company, Intuitive Machines, it scheduled to head to the Moon from around the middle of February 2024 onwards. Their Nova-C lander is headed to crater Malapert A near the Moon’s south pole. This mission will be carrying five NASA and commercial Lunar payloads. Plus there’s more on the way!
There are numerous upcoming missions to the Moon in both the early and advanced stages of planning . In fact ESA(European Space Agency) has stated that by 2023 there will more than 100 missions to the Moon. Not all of these will be Lunar rovers. Quite a large percentage of these will be Lunar orbiters, surveying in detail the Moon’s surface and searching for resources. There’s even an Australian Lunar rover- called Roo-ver – due to fly on a fly on a future Artemis mission, where it will collect Lunar regolith* to attempt the extraction of oxygen from it.
The Australian Space Agency’s Roo-ver Moon rover
While no humans have visited the Moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972, even the most sceptical commentators estimate that NASA’s oft-delayed Artemis program will return humans to the Moon’s surface and there’s possibility another space program will beat them too it.
Seeing there was only a small handful of space missions to the Moon and ’90s and early part of this century, why are so many new ventures to the Moon underway or on the drawing board?
The original race to the Moon in the 1960s was largely driven by the geopolitical prestige of putting boots on the Moon’s surface before anyone else. After being beaten into Earth orbit and putting the first person into by the USSR , the USA embarked on a massive effort to put a human on the Moon. In 1969 they achieved this and successfully landed a further five Apollo crews. Along the way the Apollo program answered some important scientific questions including those around the formation of the Earth-Moon system.
Having “beaten the Russians to the Moon”, the American people quickly lost interest in the Apollo program and there was pressure on NASA over the huge costs of the program. Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were cancelled and since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, no human has left Earth’s orbit. (Having “dodged a bullet” with Apollo 13, some in NASA were nervous about further mishaps with the vastly complex Apollo spacecraft.)
Space exploration, especially to the Moon, has been seen for decades as the mark of a developed, high-tech society – this is certainly many developing countries aspire to.
Resources for staying and living on the Moon – and exploring beyond
Oxygen and water. Studies show that both of these critical resources exist in usable quantities in the Lunar regolith and frozen in the Moon’s polar regions. Oxygen, especially is plentiful and pretty much everywhere on the Moon. The issue where is it’s “stored”
Each tonne of Lunar regolith contains around 450kg of oxygen. It’s tightly bound to the rocky materials in the regolith, so the chemical bond holding these compounds need to be broken using energy. We already do this here on Earth with common materials, including aluminium, so it’s not unknown technology. Just tricky to learn how to do this on the Moon!
The Moon’s polar region are known to have water frozen in deep shadows around the pole. There’s some debate about the actual amount accessible on the surface, but it is will a vast reserve.
Developing techniques for exploiting materials elsewhere in the Solar System
Learning to live and work in space is hard. The ISS (International Space Station) has been used to do just that, but is limited to life in orbit and not on the surface. Many researchers feel that a permanent base on the Moon will be able to act as a “gateway” for future missions to Mars and mineral and resource rich asteroids elsewhere in the Solar System. (The current SpaceX plan to put humans on Mars goes directly there – no Lunar stop offs. You can check it out here.)
NASA’s Artemis program has the establishment of a Lunar base camp in its timeline – possibly close to Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole.
Illustration of NASA astronauts on the lunar South Pole. Image via: NASA
These Lunar bases are still many years, it not decades away from being built. Have a look at NASA’s Artemis base camp plans here.
Science on the Moon – protecting ancient sites
What’s there to protect on the Moon? Isn’t it a lifeless, rocky body?
There’s few reasons for sealing off part of the Moon for further scientific study. The very water that’s being searched for at the Moon’s polar regions has likely been delivered to the Lunar surface in meteorites and comets slamming into the Moon over billions of years. This means these regions of water ice are sample of the very earliest periods of the Solar System and could contain pointers to the development of life on Earth. (Water is found other Solar System moons but might have undergone geological and possibly biological processes over billions of years.)
NASA’s Artemis accords signed by 31 countries agree among other things that certain areas on the Moon such as the Apollo landing sites are of historic value and will be protected, peaceful exploration of space and resource extraction, but there’s no explicit protection of regions of scientific value.
The Moon would make an ideal places for a wide variety of telescopes (Image via KORNMESSER/ESO)
The far side of the Moon that points away from Earth has long been suggested as a place for large optical and radio telescopes instead of them being placed in space. Light pollution isn’t going to be a problem and radio emissions from Earth will be shielded by the Moon. Probes in Lunar orbit chatting to surface mining rovers might interfere with radio observations or fine Lunar dust being thrown up could effect observations.
Resources for use here on Earth
Helium-3 is often given as a reason for the race to the Moon. This is an isotope of helium and has the advantage of not making the reactor and surrounds radioactive during nuclear fusion. It does require much higher temperatures to achieve nuclear fusion ignition than than other materials.
The reason more helium-3 is found on the Moon rather than on the Earth is that the Moon’s regolith has been blasted by the Solar wind over billions or years, creating this isotope. There might be reserves of helium-3 on Earth, trapped in the mantle either from the formation of the planet or processes since then.** The thinking is as this is well below the Earth’s crust, it would be easier to obtain it from the Moon’s surface.
All this is somewhat academic though. There’s no doubt that large scale fusion power would truly change the world and the quantity of fuel required to do this is fairly small. However, we don’t possess the technology for any kind sustainable nuclear fusion reactor, let alone one that uses helium-3. In other words, why spend a fortune to get the fuel for an engine that could be decades away?
So, why is everyone heading to the Moon?
As seen, there’s multiple reason. There’s national prestige at stake, testing of new technology and methods of living in space. There might be minerals and rare elements not easily found Earth and very importantly, it’s a gateway to the exploration and use of resources further out in the Solar System.
Finally – can you see the NASA Apollo landing sites through a telescope?
No. Even the most powerful telescopes on Earth can’t see them. You can see where they landed, but the equipment left before and the the astronaut’s footprints are too small to resolve from Earth.
Guide to Apollo landing sites – image via NASA
When you’re looking up at the Moon through a telescope, remember to wave at the growing fleet of robots in orbit and crawling over the Lunar surface.
*Regolith is the term used for the layer of dust and small rocks that cover the Lunar surface. Unlike the complex soil here on Earth, it hasn’t gone through any weathering processes or contains biological materials.
*There’s also the possibility of producing and obtaining helium-3 on Earth through various processes, and some have suggested other places in the Solar System.