Other nations have their own projects. Russia prepares the Luna 25 mission for 2021. Its objective: explore lunar resources. This same year, NASA will test an experimental lander, which will test its ability to send humans there. Already in 2022, the Orion capsule, in which the astronauts will travel to the satellite two years later, will carry out an unmanned flight. During this time, the European Space Agency (ESA) will collaborate with the United States and those of Russia, Canada and Japan in an ambitious lunar exploration program that will be developed over the next decade.
By then, NASA will have already sent a golf cart-sized rover called VIPER to the satellite – the launch will likely take place in December 2022 – which will be dedicated to taking soil samples with a one meter drill at the south pole. This will allow us to draw the first global map of water on the Moon and determine how much we could use. “We know from observations from the LCROSS and Chandrayaan-1 missions that the ice is there, as a volatile compound,” explains Anthony Colaprete, VIPER project scientist. But what we do not know exactly how it is distributed or how deep it is. That’s where our rover comes in. “
But the jewel in the crown of NASA’s plans is the Artemis program. This has received the name of Apollo’s sister, which is that of the aforementioned initiative that took man to the Moon, and which will culminate in the sending of a crew to the satellite, perhaps in 2024. ” [ Estos exploradores ] they will alight in a place where no human has done it until now: the South Pole – explains NASA spokeswoman Cheryl Warner -. There, robots and humans will work to find water and other essential compounds to be able to explore the solar system in the long term. The more resources we can take advantage of in space, the less we will have to send there ”.
Artemis’s success will largely depend on the Gateway facility, a lunar orbital station that will serve as a base of operations. It will not be permanently occupied and will be much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS): while this is like a six-bedroom flat, Gateway will look more like an apartment. Even so, the latter will be equipped with rooms, laboratories and various embarkation points, which will allow the ships to refuel and the astronauts to stop and prepare to go or return to the Moon.
If all goes as planned, the first module of the station will be launched in 2022. It will be assembled in space, but its construction will depend on the correct operation of two other devices: the Orion manned capsule and the super heavy rocket SLS (Space Launch System) , which NASA is working on. Finally, the first phase of the Gateway could be ready in 2024. It will have a lander attached to the Moon and will have the bare minimum necessary to carry out its main task: to facilitate two astronauts to set foot on our satellite again. It is probable that before the end of that decade the first European will do so.
Between 2025 and 2028 a second phase will begin, in which the development of the lunar station will be completed. By then, a manned mission will follow each year and five or six rockets will be sent, some of them built by the private sector. Later, scientific and economic operations on the Moon will be enhanced. To this end, NASA is promoting the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, in which different companies participate. The idea is that they are the ones that develop the appropriate transport systems to carry cargo there, from probes to support vehicles, and that space agencies contract their services so that they can focus exclusively on science and exploration.
In theory, the Gateway will end up being an international project in which public and private entities will collaborate, but the necessary agreements for this are just beginning. Then, How much effort is it worth?
On the one hand, our satellite can provide us with information about the origin of the Earth, since it was formed about 4.4 billion years ago, when a body the size of Mars collided with our planet. In addition to favoring experiments in low gravity, with high radiation or high temperature contrasts, it is an excellent vantage point, since the observatories that are established there will not have to deal with atmospheric interference.
Everything necessary to explore the Solar System, from habitats to psychological treatments, will be developed on the satellite, and it will become a true spaceport. Different agencies contemplate building infrastructures to resupply ships destined for the red planet and asteroids, because it will also be key to promoting space mining. The Moon itself has some interesting resources that could be used to make fuel, feed, fusion reactors or obtain iron, titanium or aluminum. It is also possible to use the regolith that covers its surface as a construction material.
But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is that all this cooperation will be, as the aforementioned Leonard Davis says, “the school in which nations will learn to work together in space and begin to build a permanent power out there ”.