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Explained: The significance of NASA’s Artemis mission, the beginning of a new age of human exploration of the Moon

The program’s first step is the upcoming test flight of NASA's new Moon rocket, the Space Launch System, with the Orion capsule on top where astronauts will sit during future missions. This is an uncrewed flight, and Orion will swing around the Moon and return to Earth.

NASA's next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) , with its Orion crew capsule on top, is readied for launch of the unmanned Artemis 1 mission at Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 29, 2022. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

“We are going.”

That is the catchphrase that NASA is using in the lead-up to the debut flight of its new moon rocket, which could launch as early as 8.33 am Eastern time (6.03 pm in India) on Monday (August 29).

However, it seemed unlikely that the launch, which will take place from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, would take place at this earliest opportunity. NASA was scheduled to start its official live broadcast of the launch at 6.30 am Eastern (4 pm IST) but postponed because of issues with the rocket that were being troubleshooted.

In the event of unfavourable weather or technical glitches, the liftoff can be pushed back as much as two hours, to 10.33 am (8.03 pm IST). If the rocket can’t get off the ground at all on Monday, it can try again on Friday (September 2) or the following Monday (September 5).

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But why does NASA want to go back to the Moon, where it has been several times, and last went 50 years ago?

It would appear odd that NASA should want to repeat what it did a half-century ago, especially since astronauts will not actually step on the Moon for several years, and by that time, NASA will have spent about $100 billion.

But NASA officials today argue that the Moon missions are central to the human spaceflight program and not simply a do-over of the Apollo moon landings from 1969-72.

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“It’s a future where NASA will land the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a news conference this month. “And on these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space and will develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”

This is a change from as recently as 2010, when President Barack Obama delivered a speech saying NASA should aim for more ambitious destinations like asteroids and Mars and move beyond the moon.

“We’ve been there (to the Moon) before,” Obama said.

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So what does this new Moon mission hope to achieve?

The new program was named Artemis by NASA leaders during the Trump administration. (In Greek mythology, Artemis, the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and vegetation, as well as of chastity and childbirth, was the twin sister of Apollo, the much loved god of music and divination.)

The program’s first step will be the upcoming test flight of the Moon rocket, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), with the Orion capsule on top where astronauts will sit during future missions. This uncrewed flight, during which Orion will swing around the moon before returning to Earth, is to wring out any issues with the spacecraft before putting people on board.

An undated photo by Dominic Hart/NASA of Dylan Schmidt, the CAPSTONE spacecraft’s assembly integration and test lead, installing its solar panels at Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. Early on Monday, June 27, 2022, the spacecraft is scheduled to launch as the first piece of Artemis, NASA’s 21st-century moon program, to head to the moon. (Dominic Hart/NASA via The New York Times)

In addition to the mission’s function as a proving ground for technologies needed for a much longer trip to Mars, NASA is also hoping to jump-start companies looking to set up a steady business of flying scientific instruments and other payloads to the moon, and to inspire students to enter science and engineering fields.

“We explore because that’s part of our nature,” Nelson said.

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In recent years, China has successfully landed three robotic missions on the Moon. India and an Israeli nonprofit also sent landers in 2019, although both crashed. A South Korean orbiter is on its way.

Nelson said that China’s expanding space ambitions, which include a lunar base in the 2030s, also provided motivation for Artemis. “We have to be concerned that they would say: ‘This is our exclusive zone. You stay out,’” he said. “So, yes, that’s one of the things that we look at.”

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For scientists, the renewed focus on the Moon also promises a bonanza of new data in the coming years.

The rocks collected by the astronauts during the Apollo missions upended planetary scientists’ understanding of the solar system. Analysis of radioactive isotopes provided precise dating of various regions of the Moon’s surface. The rocks also revealed a startling origin story for the Moon: It appears to have formed out of debris ejected into space when a Mars-size object slammed into Earth 4.5 billion years ago.

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But for two decades after Apollo 17 (1972), the last moon landing, NASA turned its attention away from the moon, which to many appeared to be a desolate, dry, airless world. It shifted its focus to other places in the solar system, like Mars and the multitude of moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Scientific interest in the moon never fully disappeared, though. Indeed, its desolate nature means that rocks that hardened billions of years ago remain in almost pristine condition.

“As scientists, we understand that the Moon is in some sense a Rosetta stone,” said David A Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute near Houston. “It is the best place in the solar system to study the origin and evolution of planets in the solar system.”

What new things have scientists discovered about the Moon in recent decades?

Scientists have discovered that the Moon is not as dry as they had thought.

Water, frozen at the bottom of eternally dark craters at the poles, is a valuable resource. It can provide drinking water for future astronauts visiting the Moon, and water can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen.

The oxygen could provide breathable air; oxygen and hydrogen could be used as rocket propellant. Thus, the Moon, or a refuelling station in orbit around the Moon, could serve as a stop for spacecraft to refill their tanks before heading into the solar system.

The ices, if they were ancient accumulations over several billion years, could even provide a scientific history book of the solar system.

Growing knowledge of the ices drew renewed interest in the Moon. In the early 2000s, Anthony Colaprete, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said he thought about the Moon “only in passing”.

Then NASA put in a call for proposals for a spacecraft that could tag along to the Moon with the upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. Colaprete, who at the time was primarily involved with climate models of Mars, proposed the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, which he thought could confirm hints of water ice that had been detected by a couple of lunar spacecraft in the 1990s.

LCROSS would direct the upper stage of the rocket that launched the mission into one of the polar craters at 5,600 mph, and then a small trailing spacecraft would measure what was kicked up by the impact.

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“It was a rather crude sampling method,” Colaprete said.

But NASA liked the idea and selected it. In June 2009, the rocket carrying the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS launched. That October, LCROSS made its death dive into Cabeus crater, near the moon’s south pole.

A month later, Colaprete had his answer: There was indeed water at the bottom of Cabeus, and quite a bit of it.

Instruments on an Indian orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, also found unmistakable signs of water, and scientists using state-of-the-art techniques found water locked up in the minerals of old Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 rocks.

First published on: 29-08-2022 at 18:25 IST
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