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Everything we know about NASA’s return to the Moon

It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but NASA has big plans following its Artemis 1 mission to the Moon.

The space agency launched its first rocket in the Artemis program on Wednesday  – an unmanned, 450,000-kilometre flight that scientists will use to gather data on space travel and then monitor conditions on the Moon’s surface.

It’s the first step in NASA’s plans for the next big leap in space travel.

The agency plans to send people to the Moon – and leave them there.

Those astronauts are scheduled to travel to the Moon on Artemis 3 no earlier than 2025. Artemis 3 will be the first crewed landing on the Moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

But why has it taken us 50 years to get this far?

Trial, error, and more trial

The launch of Artemis 1 marked a significant milestone in the history of space travel and exploration. But it didn’t come before some hiccups.

The $6.1 billion rocket initially could not take off as planned on Tuesday because of a fuel leak. So a brave group of technicians known as the ‘Red Crew’ worked underneath the gigantic, fully fuelled rocket and risked their lives fixing the problem.

They did, and so Artemis 1 was finally ready for take off (at the third attempt).

“It’s pretty scary,” Red Crew member Trent Annis told NASA TV. “My heart was pumping … the rocket is, you know, alive, it’s creaking, it’s making venting noises.”

The fuel leak was the latest in 10 weeks of delays caused by other technical problems, two hurricanes and two mammoth journeys for the 32-storey rocket from its hangar to the launch pad.

Great leap forward

After Artemis 1 will come Artemis 2, another exploratory mission. Then will come Artemis 3 – the mission that will put humans on the Moon again.

The main mission of Artemis 3 will be the construction of the Artemis Base Camp on the Moon’s South Pole and a multipurpose outpost called the Gateway, which will orbit the Moon.

NASA will be using SpaceX’s Starship as a lunar lander for the mission, which will take astronauts about 1000 times farther from Earth than missions to the International Space Station.

While four crew are expected to make the journey, only two astronauts will make the initial Moon landing.

The astronauts participating in the Moon landing haven’t been announced. But NASA said Artemis 3 will see the first woman and first person of colour land on the Moon.

NASA

A concept image of what astronaut life could look like on the moon. Photo: NASA

The location of the space agency’s lunar outpost has been chosen due to its proximity to ice (which will be purified into drinkable water) and other mineral resources.

The Artemis Base Camp will include a lunar cabin, a rover and a mobile home.

Early missions are expected to be short stays. As the base camp evolves, NASA’s goal is to allow crew to stay on the Moon for up to two months at a time.

Why is NASA setting up camp on the Moon?

NASA says it is making the journey back to the Moon for:

  • Scientific discoveries, as the Moon has “greater than average” access to light, will help humans prepare for future trips on other planets, and could potentially unlock scientific secrets about the history and evolution of the Earth and Moon, and the solar system.
  • Economic benefits, enabling a growing lunar economy by fuelling new industries, supporting job growth, and furthering the demand for a skilled workforce.
  • The inspiration of a new generation of explorers NASA has dubbed “the Artemis Generation”.

“On each new trip, astronauts are going to have an increasing level of comfort with the capabilities to explore and study more of the Moon than ever before,” Kathy Lueders, then NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight, said in 2020.

“With more demand for access to the Moon, we are developing the technologies to achieve an unprecedented human and robotic presence 240,000 miles from home,” she said.

“Our experience on the Moon this decade will prepare us for an even greater adventure in the universe – human exploration of Mars.”

There is also interest from several companies to extract metals and oxygen from the Moon, although it could take 10 to 20 years to get to this point.

How far away are we from living on Mars?

NASA is planning to use what it learns from its long-term presence on the Moon to help send the first astronauts to Mars.

Mars would be only the second place humans have stepped foot beyond Earth, after the Moon.

Because Earth and Mars orbit the sun at different speeds, spacecraft will have to chase Mars around the sun, and will need to chase Earth back around the sun to return home.

All in all, with current technology, NASA estimates a trip from Earth to Mars would take about nine months, and the return trip would take the same time.

NASA

Concept image of two astronauts setting up a science experiment on Mars. Photo: NASA

Nearly all of the systems deployed on the lunar surface will serve as prototypes for future Mars surface systems, and feedback from astronauts on the Moon will be used for improvements.

Long-term stays in space and on the Moon will also allow scientists to observe how the human body responds in a true deep space environment before committing to the years-long journey to Mars.

NASA hopes the first humans to land on Mars will spend about 30 days on the surface. Scientists first need to make sure it’s safe to stay on the red planet for any amount of time at all.

The hazards of space travel

There are several health risks associated with human spaceflight.

Above Earth’s natural protection, radiation exposure increases cancer risk, damages the central nervous system, can alter cognitive function, reduces motor function and prompt changes in behaviour.

Astronauts on the International Space Station are exposed to 10 times higher radiation than on Earth, for example. But it’s still a smaller dose than what deep space has in store, which is why deep space vehicles will have significant protective shielding and alert systems.

NASA

NASA astronauts Zena Cardman and Drew Feustel wear mock-up spacesuits ahead of a week of simulated moon walks. Photo:NASA/Bill Stafford

Being isolated for weeks or months in a confined space with only a few other people for company can also affect space explorers’ mental health, while the distance between Mars and Earth means equipment failures or medical emergencies will be a lot more life-threatening with help a long way away.

The variance of gravity in space also means astronauts will have to adapt to Earth’s gravitational pull when they get home – years without standard gravity will take a toll on bones, muscles and the cardiovascular system.

But with governments and billionaires keen to make Mars a new home for humans, money is being poured into finding solutions and preventive measures for these health risks, and life on the red planet looks to be a very real possibility – some day.

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