NASA juggled light and dark to find 13 potential landing sites for the upcoming Artemis III mission, which will return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
Key to the choices was finding locations that would provide the astronaut duo with enough sunlight on the surface for 6 1/2 days of energy and heat protection, while also providing access to the dark areas of the craters and nearby mountainous terrain. The south pole of the moon can hold water ice.
The discovery of water ice, which can break down into its component compounds oxygen and hydrogen to provide life-sustaining air and potential fuel, was the driving force behind the initial Artemis missions.
An unmanned Artemis I rocket is on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, awaiting a potential launch on August 2. 29. Artemis II is scheduled to fly with astronauts in 2024, but instead orbits the moon. The Artemis III launch is scheduled for 2025, and two of its four astronauts, including the first woman, will carry a version of SpaceX’s Starship to the lunar surface.
“Several of the proposed sites within the regions are among the oldest parts of the moon and, along with regions in permanent shadow, provide an opportunity to learn about the moon’s history through previously unstudied lunar materials,” NASA’s Artemis said. Sarah Noble, Head of Lunar Science.
Each of the 13 sites is approximately 9.3 miles by 9.3 miles, and each site has a 328-foot radius of potential landing space. Names of 13 potential areas: Faustini Rim A, Peak Near Shackleton, Peak Near Shackleton, Connecting Ridge, Connecting Ridge Extension, de Gerlache Rim 1, de Gerlache Rim 2, de Gerlache-Kocher Massif, Haworth, Malapert Massif, Leibnitz Beta Plateau, Nobile Rim 1, Nobile Rim 2 and Amundsen Rim.
These landing sites are a far cry from the six human landing sites during the 1969-1972 Apollo missions.
“This is a new part of the Moon. It’s a place we’ve never explored,” Noble said. “All six Apollo landing sites were in the central part of the near side. Now we’re going to a completely different place in ancient geological terrain.”
Noble explained how water ice could survive in the dark regions of the moon.
“The poles are unique because of the lighting conditions there, and the extreme lighting conditions cause really extreme temperatures in some of these craters that the sun has literally not reached for billions of years,” he said. “Some of the coldest places in the solar system exist there. And those cold traps are where we believe water and other volatiles are trapped. “It’s so cold there that molecules bouncing around the moon jump into one of these cold traps and can’t get out again.”
The choice of locations will be narrowed closer to the launch date, as some will be more accessible than others depending on what time of year the rocket leaves the KSC.
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All 13 are within 6 degrees of the moon’s south pole, and among them are several geological features, according to NASA.
“NASA was tasked with landing on the south polar region of the moon to take advantage of the unique environmental conditions,” said Jacob Blecher, NASA’s chief intelligence scientist. “Conditions that provide more than average amounts of sunlight provide access to variable models that will reveal new mysteries about our solar system, while potentially providing valuable resources that can help accommodate future infrastructure.”
He said the pole encompasses places that see continuous light from the sun just a few miles from places that never see light.
“I think that places with more than average amounts of light allow us to develop systems that use light for energy and thermal control,” he said. “Similarly, polar locations and permanent shade provide access to trapped water and other volatiles. They do not disappear with the solar wind.”
The sites were selected by combining decades of observations, including from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Scientists and engineers will continue to evaluate potential sites for the next three years before determining the best options. Determining factors include those necessary for a safe landing, such as terrain inclination, ease of communication with Earth, lighting conditions, and capabilities of the Orion spacecraft and Starship lander.
“The selection of these regions means we are one giant leap closer to returning humans to the Moon for the first time since Apollo,” said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for Artemis Campaign Development. “When we do, it will be unlike any mission that has come before, as it takes astronauts into dark areas previously unexplored by humans and sets the stage for future extended stays.”
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