The Moon is a fundamental part of Earth’s past and future – an off-world location that may hold valuable resources to support space activity and scientific treasures that may tell us more about our own planet. Americans first walked on its surface almost 50 years ago, but the next wave of lunar exploration will be fundamentally different.
Through an innovative combination of missions involving commercial and international partners, NASA’s robotic lunar surface missions will begin as early as 2020, focus on scientific understanding of lunar resources, and prepare the lunar surface for a sustained human presence, to include the use of lunar oxygen and hydrogen for future lunar vehicles. The lunar surface will also serve as a crucial training ground and technology demonstration test site where we will prepare for future human missions to Mars and other destinations.
Since the beginning of its mission, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has imaged objects impacting the surface of the moon. Such observations are of interest scientifically since they allow NASA to test and constrain models used to understand how water and other volatiles may be transported to the permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles.
In the coming months, the first Israeli spacecraft will land on the Moon, and partnership with NASA has helped make this possible. NASA will not only help with observations from LRO and communications support during the mission, but has also developed a laser retroreflector that will fly onboard the Israeli lander.
This past month, NASA held discussions with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) to explore the possibility of observing a signature of the landing plume of their lunar lander, Chang’e 4, using LRO’s LAMP instrument. For a number of reasons, NASA was not able to phase LRO’s orbit to be at the optimal location during the landing, however NASA was still interested in possibly detecting the plume well after the landing. Science gathered about how lunar dust is ejected upwards during a spacecraft’s landing could inform future missions and how they arrive on the lunar surface.
Since the Chinese landing, LRO instruments have been collecting data that are currently being analyzed. LRO is expected to image the Chang’e 4 landing site on January 31 in a manner similar to what was done on Chang’e 3. NASA and CNSA have agreed that any significant findings resulting from this coordination activity will be shared with the global research community at the 56th session of the Scientific and Technology Subcommittee meeting of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space meeting in Vienna, Austria, February 11-22, 2019. All NASA data associated with this activity are publicly available. In accordance with Administration and Congressional guidance, NASA’s cooperation with China is transparent, reciprocal and mutually beneficial.
On the commercial side, NASA announced in November that nine U.S. companies are now eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface. These companies will develop and build robotic landers that will carry NASA and other customer’s payloads to the lunar surface.
As NASA works toward its plan to sustainably return to the Moon, it will be critical to collaborate with both commercial and international partners along the way. This approach will enable human expansion across the solar system and bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.