June 4, 2023

NASA’s return to the Moon’s Artemis program targets future astronaut landings near the lunar south pole, where ice may reside in permanently shadowed craters — potential water, air for future deep space explorers and rocket fuel components.

of the program First flight, Artemis 1, is an unmanned test mission of the Space Launch System heavy rocket and Orion crew module, which will eventually return astronauts to the moon. The 42-day test flight is scheduled to launch Monday at 8:33 a.m. ET.

If the first flight goes well, the Artemis 2 mission, expected to launch in late 2024, will carry four astronauts around the moon before returning to Earth. This will set the stage for Artemis 3 in 2025 or 2026. first woman and the next man on the lunar surface near the lunar south pole.

Artemis astronauts will also collect samples and conduct geological studies while mapping the Antarctic region to learn more about the origin and evolution of the Moon, while using these missions as a test bed for advanced technologies needed for life support systems and eventual flight . Mars.

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Conceptual image of astronauts working near the south pole of the moon.


but moon landing Challenging enough in the short term, especially to get astronauts into polar orbits needed to descend to the Antarctic region.

Keeping it “simple,” the first two Artemis missions will stick to the usual equatorial trajectories, flying behind the moon as seen from Earth, engaging and disengaging with mission controllers.

But for the Artemis 3 mission and subsequent surface flights, NASA planners have identified what’s known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO, a huge elliptical polar orbit with its low point, or perilunar point, About 1,000 miles and High Point, or Apollo, is located about 43,000 miles above the Moon’s South Pole.

That’s an orbit that Orion can reach — its service module engine isn’t powerful enough to fly directly into a low-altitude circular orbit — and it offers some distinct advantages over the more familiar equatorial orbit.

First, Orion astronauts can reach the lunar poles. Additionally, the capsules in the lunar NRHO will maintain a direct line of sight with Earth during each lunar trip, ensuring uninterrupted communications. In the absence of an eclipse, the spacecraft’s solar panels are always in the sun.

“NRHO makes possible global moon landings,” said Nujoud Merancy, director of the Office of Exploration Mission Planning at the Johnson Space Center. “It’s very fuel efficient, especially compared to other types of lunar orbits.”

The Artemis architecture calls for the construction of a small space station, Gateway, in a near-linear halo orbit, which will be equipped with solar-electric propulsion, habitation modules, airlocks and docking ports.

Astronauts in the Orion crew capsule, launched on the SLS booster, will fly into the NRHO, dock with the Gateway and go inside. Unlike the International Space Station, the Gateway can only support a limited number of crew members for relatively short stops, but it will provide an ideal research platform for studying the moon in detail.

An artist’s impression of the Orion spacecraft, about to dock at the Gateway space station in NASA’s planned lunar orbit.


“NRHO will provide the Gateway with a continuous line-of-sight or view of the Earth, so we can have uninterrupted communications,” Merancy said. “As the Gateway vehicle travels through deep space, its presence provides many opportunities for radiation (research) and for deeper analysis of space weather for humans and instruments for future exploration.”

But for the first landing mission, Artemis 3, the Gateway will not be available. Instead, NASA gave SpaceX an exclusive $2.9 billion contract to develop a variant of its Starship rocket as a lander.

Instead of the Gateway, Artemis 3 Orion will dock with a starship in lunar orbit, where the two astronauts will descend to the ground. SpaceX plans to launch an uncrewed test mission before the Artemis 3 crew arrives.

Other companies are developing designs for follow-on landers. How this will play out remains to be seen, but NASA appears to be working on a Gateway space station that could also be used for lunar research missions that don’t include landings.

NASA is sponsoring a small satellite mission called CAPSTONE to act as an Artemis pathfinder. Launched in June on a Rocketlab booster in New Zealand, CAPSTONE will reach a near-linear halo orbit around the Moon in mid-December. It is designed to collect data on the radiation environment and lighting when testing communications.

In August, NASA identified 13 candidate landing sites within the confines of permanently shadowed craters or depressions, which will give Artemis moonwalkers the opportunity to explore and look for signs of ice while still benefiting from nearby persistent of sunlight.

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NASA has selected 13 candidate landing sites at the lunar south pole, where Artemis astronauts will be able to harvest solar energy using near-continuous sunlight, as well as accessible craters and depressions that are never illuminated by the sun. These craters may harbor ice that future astronauts could use to produce water, air and rocket fuel.


“Selecting these regions means we’re a huge step closer to returning humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program,” Mark Kirasic, senior planner at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. When done, it will be unlike any previous mission as astronauts venture into dark areas previously unexplored by humans and lay the groundwork for long-term stays in the future.”

NASA chief exploration scientist Jacob Bleacher said Artemis astronauts will help the agency develop “a blueprint for exploring the solar system.”

“From a scientific standpoint, lunar water ice is valuable as a resource because we can extract oxygen and hydrogen from it for life support systems and fuel.”

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