NASA has yet to launch the rocket that would take astronauts to the moon, and it has not yet selected the crew that would explore the lunar surface as part of its Artemis program. But it has already determined where on the moon the astronauts would land.
The space agency announced Friday that it has selected 13 possible regions on the moon’s south pole, where there is ice in the permanently shadowed craters, and are far from the area explored by Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts.
The first human mission to land on the moon in some 50 years is now scheduled for 2025 and would be the first manned moon landing since the last of the Apollo missions in 1972. NASA has vowed to return humans to the lunar surface — a bold plan born during the Trump administration that has been embraced by the Biden White House.
Although it has encountered some setbacks and delays, the program is the first deep-space, human exploration program since Apollo to survive subsequent reigns. But unlike Apollo, Artemis is designed to create a permanent presence on and around the moon. And NASA has moved forward with a sense of urgency as China also wants to send astronauts to the moon.
In a briefing Friday, NASA officials said they chose the landing sites using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter — a robotic spacecraft that has been mapping the lunar surface since 2009 — as well as other studies of the moon.
“By selecting these regions, we are a huge step closer to returning humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo,” Mark Kirasich, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for the Artemis campaign development division, said in a statement. “If we do, it will be unlike any previous mission, as astronauts venture into dark regions previously unexplored by humans, laying the groundwork for future long-term residency.”
NASA had already announced it would return to the moon’s south pole. But the specific locations, all in a cluster six degrees latitude north of the South Pole, were chosen, NASA said, because they provide safe landing sites close enough to permanently shaded areas for the crew to take a moonwalk there as part of their journey. . six-and-a-half day stay on the moon.
That, NASA said, would allow astronauts to “collect samples and conduct scientific analysis in an uncompromised area, yielding important information about the depth, distribution and composition of water ice confirmed at the moon’s south pole.”
Water is important for sustaining human life, but also because its constituents — hydrogen and oxygen — can be used for rocket propellant.
The Apollo missions went to the equatorial regions of the moon, where there are long stretches of daylight — as many as two weeks at a time. The South Pole, on the other hand, may only have a few days of light, making missions more challenging and limiting windows when NASA can launch.
“It’s a long way from the Apollo sites,” said Sarah Noble, Artemis’ chief of lunar science. “Now we’re going somewhere completely different.”
The announcement comes as NASA prepares the first of its Artemis missions, now scheduled for August 29. That flight, known as Artemis I, would be the first launch of NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket that would send the Orion crew pod, without all the astronauts on board, into orbit around the moon for a 42-day mission.
Earlier this week, the space agency rolled the rocket and spacecraft to pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and officials say everything remains on track for a two-hour launch window that opens at 8:33 a.m. NASA has reserved backup launch dates for 2 and September 5 if there is a delay.
One of the flight’s main objectives is to test Orion’s heat shield, said Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission manager. The heat shield is intended to protect Orion and future crew members from the extreme temperatures it will encounter when it enters Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 mph or Mach 32.
The mission would be followed by a flight of four astronauts who would orbit the moon but fail to land, as early as 2024. A human landing, the first since the last of the Apollo missions in 1972, is now tentative. planned for 2025.
That mission depends on a number of factors, including the development of SpaceX’s Starship rocket and spacecraft, which would meet Orion in orbit around the moon and then transport astronauts to and from the moon’s surface.
“I feel like we’re on a rollercoaster about to pass the top of the biggest hill,” NASA’s chief research scientist Jacob Bleacher told reporters on Friday. “Brace yourself, everyone, we’re going for a ride to the moon.”