NASA has released its science priorities for the first manned Artemis lunar landing, scheduled for 2024. But before they put their shoes on the lunar regolith, the next man and woman visiting the moon must return to school, as mission planners prepare their tools for the next mission.
“The moon has enormous scientific potential, and astronauts will help us empower this science,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, explained in a NASA statement yesterday. “This report helps set a path forward toward the compelling science that we can now consider doing on the surface of the Moon in partnership with human explorers.”
Indeed, the 2024 Artemis III mission will include a phrase close and dear to scientists: On site. In this context, the Latin phrase means “on site,” which, when you talk about human work on the moon, is very rare and special. Astronauts will manage lunar science On site In a few years’ time, this will matter, and NASA is preparing accordingly.
To this end, the Space Agency released an 188-page report on the issue, detailing its scientific priorities for the Artemis III mission. Among the many goals listed, NASA wants to ensure that the astronauts selected for the mission have the required scientific training, a variety of sampling tools and capabilities, on-demand access to experts on the ground, and the ability to safely store a variety of material samples for the return trip to Earth. Moreover, NASA wants the team to return more than twice the typical amount of surface material collected during the Apollo missions.
Ultimately, NASA hopes these investigations will help scientists better understand the basic planetary processes operating across and outside the Solar System. The work done during the Artemis III mission should advance the space agency’s plans to build a base on the moon as well as clear the way for a manned mission to Mars.
Oh, if you’re wondering about Artemis I and Artemis II, the first mission will include the inaugural launch of NASA’s SLS missile, scheduled for late 2021, while the second mission, scheduled for 2023, will see a crew launch into Earth orbit (but not to the moon). Well, Artemis III would be a pretty big leap. Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, in what have been called “rehearsal” missions, orbited the moon before the famous Apollo 11 crew landed in 1969.
In the new report, NASA outlined seven science goals for Artemis III. These include a better understanding of planetary processes and the “properties and origin of lunar volatiles” such as water ice. The mission should provide insights into the history of the moon’s impact and allow “the universe and the local space environment to be monitored from a unique location”. NASA also hopes to unveil a record of the sun’s history and the astronomical environment in general. Astronauts will conduct some experiments in the lunar environment, and the mission as a whole should better inform planners about the potential risks humans face in space. NASA’s Science Definition Team reached these goals in consultation with the scientific community and by consulting guidance documents produced over the past decade.
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All of this must be accomplished in the 6.5 days allocated to the Artemis III mission. The new report gives us a good idea of what the astronauts will do, and it now gives mission planners something to work with as they move forward. For example, the engineers working at xEMU, the Lunar Space Suit, now have a better sense of what astronauts will need for the scientific side of the mission, which was not entirely clear before the report.
Indeed, the new report is full of recommendations.
Like the Apollo crews, Artemis astronauts are expected to attend courses in geology and planetary science, which will include class time and investigations in the field. The report requests providing real-time data and a video link for astronauts while working on the moon, and connecting them with science experts on Earth. Delay won’t be an issue, as it takes about 2.4 to 2.7 seconds for radio signals to make the round trip. Compare that to Mars, for example, as it takes 10 to 40 minutes to go back and forth with Earth, depending on the position of the two planets.
The report asks for lighter, more versatile scientific instruments capable of gathering multiple evidence (single-use devices are not required). Astronauts must collect a variety of material samples and use lightweight, double-sealed vacuum containers for the return trip to Earth. Crew should also be equipped with refrigerated containers to store volatiles such as water ice. Altogether, NASA hopes to obtain 183 pounds (83 kilograms) of lunar material, which is “just over 64 kg.” [141 pound] Average mass of sample yield from the Apollo missions, “according to the report.
To facilitate this work, the report recommends that tools, equipment, and scientific resources be delivered to the Artemis III landing site near the moon’s south pole prior to the arrival of astronauts. This could include a rover, which the authors say will greatly improve the mobility of the landing crew and thus improve their ability to collect a variety of samples. According to the report, good maps will also help.
This all sounds amazing and exciting. However, a launch in 2024 is less certain, given how much work remains to be done and the uncertainty posed by the upcoming Biden administration. The president-elect has been outspoken about his pending policy to NASA, and it was not immediately clear if a mission to the Moon would be among his top priorities.
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