Fifty years after NASA's Apollo 11 mission put the first boots on the lunar surface, many plans are afoot to explore and exploit Earth's nearest neighbor.
NASA is leading the charge with its Artemis program, which aims to land two astronauts near the moon's south pole by 2024 and to build up a long-term, sustainable presence on and around Earth's nearest neighbor in the ensuing years.
One of Artemis' key pieces is a small moon-orbiting space station called the Gateway, which NASA plans to start building in 2022. The Gateway will serve as a staging point for sorties, both crewed and uncrewed, to the lunar surface.
Many of these jaunts will touch down near the lunar south pole, which harbors huge amounts of water ice on the floors of permanently shadowed craters. NASA views this ice as a potentially game-changing resource, which will not only keep astronauts alive but also help fuel their spacecraft and any others that may swing by. (Water can be split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, the chief components of rocket fuel.)
Over the past few years, European Space Agency officials have repeatedly stressed their desire to build a permanent human settlement on the moon. This "moon village," which could take decades to build (if indeed it is built), would likely rise near the south pole.
And China has already embarked on an ambitious robotic lunar-exploration campaign, known as Chang'e (after the Chinese moon goddess). The program successfully sent orbiters to the moon in 2007 and 2010 and dropped landers and rovers onto the surface in 2013 and January of this year. That most recent lunar mission, Chang'e 4, touched down on the moon's mysterious far side — something that had never been done before.
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Throughout the 2020s, China plans to return lunar samples to Earth and build a small, robotic research outpost near the moon's south pole. These efforts may well pave the way for crewed exploration of the lunar surface, perhaps in the early 2030s. Chinese space officials have mentioned building a crewed "lunar palace," but this goal is not formally on the nation's docket at the moment.
The nation's Chandrayaan-1 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and an impactor that slammed hard into the lunar surface, spotted evidence of water ice shortly after arriving at the moon in 2008. Chandrayaan-2, which successfully launched early Monday (July 22), will attempt to put a lander and rover down on the surface.
(To date, only the Soviet Union/Russia, the United States and China have soft-landed on the moon. The Israeli lander Beresheet came close but crashed during its touchdown attempt this past April.)
Chandrayaan-3, a possible joint effort with Japan, may send a lander and rover to a lunar pole in 2024. K. Sivan, Chairman of the India Space Research Organisation, said Monday that the country will push toward Chandrayaan-3 as it continues its push for ever-more-ambitious space missions.
Russia, which hasn't landed on the moon since the Luna-24 mission in the mid-1970s (when the nation was still part of the Soviet Union), also plans to get in on the action soon. The country is working on Luna-25, a resource-prospecting mission to the lunar south pole that could launch in the 2022 to 2024 time frame, according to Russian space officials.
This is far from an exhaustive list; NASA has other lunar projects in the pipeline, for example, including several tiny resource-scouting craft that will launch on the first flight of the agency's huge Space Launch System rocket next year. But this brief accounting does give you an idea of what's coming.
Private industry is also gearing up for the coming moon rush. NASA plans to partner extensively with space companies to accomplish Artemis' ambitious goals — using privately built landers to get to and from the lunar surface, for example.
These landers will have many other customers as well, if all goes according to plan: Companies such as Astrobotic, Moon Express, Blue Origin and ispace envision significant and diverse demand for their lunar-transportation services.
"Our vision is really to expand Earth's economic and social sphere to include the moon," Alain Berinstain, Moon Express' vice president of global development, said last year at a lunar-science workshop at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "We see the moon as the Earth's eighth continent to explore and to also mine for resources, like we have with every other continent on Earth."
Some of this demand is already apparent. For example, Astrobotic's Peregrine lander will carry 28 payloads on its first mission to the lunar surface, which is targeted for 2021. NASA is providing 14 of them; the other 14 will come from private companies, university groups and other organizations.
So, we could see some very exciting things happening on the moon soon, especially if the plans of the space billionaires work out.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is building a 100-passenger spaceship called Starship and a huge rocket known as Super Heavy to ferry people to and from Mars, the moon and other destinations. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos, who runs Blue Origin, has repeatedly said the company aims to help get millions of people living and working in space.
A Japanese billionaire has already booked a round-the-moon Starship mission, which is currently targeted for 2023. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is working on a big lander called Blue Moon, future iterations of which could carry people.
So, a moon colony may not remain a sci-fi dream for much longer.