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NASA’s plan to return to the moon with Project Artemis

TechnologyNASA's plan to return to the moon with Project Artemis

The mission

While Artemis’s 2024 deadline is controversial (more on that later), NASA has long been planning to return to the Moon. There are a few reasons for this: First, there’s science and exploration. And second, we need to learn how to operate in space outside of Earth orbit. The Moon provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.

“The tl;dr is that there is definitely a scientific case for going back to the Moon,” explained Emily Lakdawalla, planetary scientist and Senior Editor at The Planetary Society. “We would go to the Moon for the same reasons that we explored in the first place. The Moon was formed out of Earth, it’s related to Earth in its origin, and it’s experienced everything in space that Earth has, except because it hasn’t been geologically active in a long time, it’s preserved the evidence for the environment in which the Earth formed in the first place and all of the asteroid impacts and other things that it experienced.” We also know more about the Moon than we did fifty years ago, and we can retrieve samples more strategically than we did during the Apollo era.

But it’s more than just that, Lakdawalla explained to Engadget. We now know the Moon holds volatiles, such as water, that are likely concentrated at its poles. These are interesting from a scientific standpoint, but they are also vital for exploration and potential habitation. “One very popular imagination for a way to have a permanent habitation on the Moon is if you set up an outpost on polar crater rim, which experiences sunlight almost all the time, and then you can do your resource extraction activity in a permanently shadowed crater, where there are these light elements — water and other stuff — that are in the dark all the time, and that’s how it preserves the volatiles. And so that’s another place that’s interesting both scientifically and for exploration,” concluded Lakdawalla.

To become a multi-planetary species, which is arguably necessary for reasons ranging from climate change to population growth to natural resources, we need to learn to live on other worlds. And that starts with learning to live on the Moon.

So how do we get there? This is the real issue, and one that NASA has been working on for years.

There are four pieces of technology that have to come together to make the (second) first Moon landing by 2024. The first is the Orion spacecraft, which will carry the astronauts to and from the Moon. The second is what’s called the Lunar Gateway, a small spaceship that Orion will dock with. It will function as a sort of space station in permanent orbit around the Moon. Unlike the ISS, though, it will not be permanently occupied; although, it will have astronaut quarters and serve as a base for lunar exploration. Third, there will be a lander to transport astronauts from the Gateway to the lunar surface and back. And finally, you need the rocket that will take Orion from the Earth’s surface to the Gateway, which is NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

It’s worth noting that none of these pieces are yet operational. NASA is currently contracting out building the lander and the Gateway.

Orion is progressing steadily; NASA recently conducted a successful abort test of the spacecraft. “The next milestone is Artemis 1, which should be in 2020,” explained Nujoud Merancy. “It is also the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, so that will be the uncrewed test flight of SLS and Orion and all the ground systems and MCC support systems that go with it. That exploration mission, Artemis 1, will be from 26 to 42 days, depending on the time of year.”

This mission will test the integration of SLS, the Orion crew vehicle and service module and the ground systems to support the entire endeavor, which is quite an undertaking. “It’s a massive test flight,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar. “That’s the biggest rocket that’s been launched globally since the Saturn V. And to get that and Orion’s systems together, integrate them, and do that shakedown cruise, which is really what that is, that needs to happen first because you’ve got to assure yourselves that the systems will operate.” This first uncrewed test flight is currently targeted for late 2020. Given the delays in development for SLS (which have been massive), it’s very possible that will slip to early 2021.

This also assumes that SLS will be the rocket used for the Moon missions. While this is indeed the current plan, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has admitted that, given the cost overruns and schedule, they may look into flying Artemis 1 (originally called EM-1) on a commercial rocket to keep it on schedule.

After that would come Artemis 2, which would be the first crewed test flight of both SLS and Orion. According to Dittmar, that needs to happen “by 2022 or early 2023” for a 2024 lunar landing mission to be feasible.

“The timeline is very aggressive. I think it’s doable, but it all depends on getting started very quickly.”

But there’s more than just Orion and SLS to worry about, Merancy explained. “You need to launch all of the pieces — Gateway and the landers, those would be on commercial flights,” she continued. That’s scheduled to begin in 2022 and must be completed and assembled before a lunar landing is feasible. “And then you’d actually have Artemis 3, which would be a lunar landing mission in 2024,” Merancy concluded.

It’s a lot of moving parts, and this ambitious schedule assumes that each piece of this goes smoothly, and there are no huge setbacks along the way. Dittmar reminded us that not a single human-rated spacecraft or rocket has ever been delivered less than two years behind schedule. So the question is whether this accelerated timeline is actually doable. “The timeline is very aggressive,” Merancy confirmed to Engadget. “I think it’s doable, but it all depends on getting started very quickly.”

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