Future lunar ambitions, scientific advances and national prestige are at the rendezvous for the launch of the missions to the Moon this year.
Why is this important: As the International Space Station program draws to a close, the Moon will only assume more strategic importance in the years to come. Lunar alliances of space nations have implications for science, business, and geopolitics on Earth.
- Today, “it’s not just an elite thing to be able to go to the moon,” according to Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation. Access to space has expanded to the point where the Moon’s potential missions are more accessible than ever to more nations.
What is happening: This year, at least three countries are aiming to send missions to the moon.
- NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket, designed to transport people to the moon by 2025 as part of the Artemis program, is set to debut this year with an unmanned mission that will send the Orion capsule around the moon and back to Earth.
- This mission will also carry smaller satellites designed to study various aspects of the Moon, including ice at the South Pole and solar radiation impacting the lunar environment.
- South Korea is set to launch its first mission to the Moon – the robotic Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter – in August, and Russia may send its unmanned Luna 25 mission to the lunar surface to investigate the moon’s ice this year.
The big picture: US companies are also targeting the moon with support from NASA this year, and so could change the course of lunar science.
- The astrobotic and intuitive machines are expected to launch their landers onto the lunar surface this year, taking payloads for NASA and other private companies with them.
- This type of mission marks a change for NASA, according to Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society. “Instead of the mission being designed around specific questions, science is made to accommodate the capabilities of the platforms.”
- “And so [they’re] generalize platforms with the goal of increasing the rate and frequency of the science you collect, but not necessarily specifically designed to address the most pressing, remote, or specific issues you encounter. “
What to watch: NASA has wooed nations to sign its Artemis Agreements, which are designed to govern behavior on the moon.
- But the space agency has competition. Russia and China plan to build their own lunar research station in the coming years, potentially attracting other potential international partners to this collaboration instead of Artemis.
- The first crewed Artemis mission to land on the moon still faces many technical hurdles ahead of launch, including SpaceX developing its own lunar lander under a contract with NASA to use its Starship rocket for launch.
- Starship is set to launch its first orbital mission this year, so it will be a key event to watch for anyone keeping an eye on the direction of NASA’s lunar ambitions.