Humans haven’t set foot on the moon in more than half a century, but NASA’s Artemis program will send them back with a series of missions beginning in early September. When the first astronaut planted here boots on lunar soil in 2025 as part of Artemis III, assuming the current schedule holds, will be the start of an even more ambitious project than sending humans back to the moon: NASA plans to build a base camp somewhere between the gray dust and jagged rocks from the moon’s south pole.
This lunar outpost will allow the Artemis missions to break the Apollo 17 record for longest stay on the moon (74 hours, 59 minutes, 38 seconds), while serving as a launching point for in-depth exploration.
nasa says The camp is going to start small, only facilitating one- or two-week missions, but as the camp grows in size and sophistication, the agency hopes to keep crews on for up to two months at a time. Current plans call for a lunar cabin, an open-top rover similar to the one used on Apollo missions and something similar to an RV that would provide mobility and allow astronauts to live and work away from base for days or weeks. .
“On each new voyage, astronauts will have an ever-increasing level of comfort with the capabilities to explore and study more of the Moon than ever before,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight, said in a statement. statements. “With increased demand for access to the moon, we are developing the technologies to achieve an unprecedented human and robotic presence 240,000 miles from home. Our experience on the moon this decade will prepare us for an even greater adventure in the universe: human exploration of Mars.”
A central element of NASA’s vision for the Artemis base camp is to find and extract resources from the moon itself. This will lighten the load on rockets taking off from Earth with supplies and potentially allow astronauts to stay on the moon for longer periods of time. These resources can include water ice, oxygen, metals, or building materials made from moon dust or rocks.
Since the introduction of the Artemis program in 2019, its timeline has been somewhat extended. The original plan was to establish the first iteration of the base camp by 2030, but an internal planning document obtained by the media Ars Technicasuggests it may be more like 2034. That may seem like a long way off, but teams of scientists and engineers around the world are already hard at work making the dream of humans living on the moon a reality. We talked to some of these experts and learned four things about the Artemis Moonbase.
NASA to search for crucial resources at lunar south pole site
A south polar location for the moon base offers astronauts two crucial ingredients: periods of continuous sunlight and deep craters with depths that have been shrouded in darkness for billions of years. Because of the way the moon is tilted relative to the sun, its south pole experiences periods of up to two months of continuous light each year, with the sun circling just above the horizon all the time. All of this sunlight can provide the Artemis base camp with a large amount of solar energy. NASA is currently exploring designs that have a solar panel over 30 feet in the air to make the most of available sunlight, says Prasun Desai, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
The same tilt that creates months of continuous illumination at the lunar poles also means that some of its craters have shadowed areas that haven’t seen the sun since the crater’s formation. These super-cold, super-dark craters, known as permanently shadowed regions, are where scientists have found evidence of water ice. If this frozen water turns out to be accessible and plentiful, it will be invaluable to the residents of the Artemis base camp and to supply flights back to Earth or Mars. (Water can also power space travel because it can be converted into propellant.)
That said, NASA cannot guarantee that water ice on the moon is abundant, accessible, or free of contaminants that require extensive refining to remove. These data, along with the location of the largest deposits, will be the subject of several NASA efforts, including the Volatile Research Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. This mobile robot is expected to reach the lunar South Pole to search for water sometime in late 2024.
But if the water present on the moon turns out to be a dud after further investigation, Ben Bussey, who leads the NASA team Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative based at Johns Hopkins University, says the key to establishing a lunar base camp will shift to lowering the cost of rocket payloads between Earth and the moon. In other words, bringing everything needed to build and supply the base from Earth to the Moon would have to be much cheaper to be feasible.
A new rover will allow astronauts to explore the moon without leaving base camp
The Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) will be the first big step toward establishing a base camp; is scheduled to arrive on a mission sometime after Artemis III in 2025.
Greg Chavers, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate’s Office of Technical Integration, says it will be possible to operate the new lunar rover remotely and that the rover will also have some ability to autonomously avoid hazards such as rocks and craters. This will allow astronauts to explore the lunar environment from the safety of a lander on earlier missions and from base camp on later missions. This also means that NASA can use the LTV to continue scientific or mission-related work, even when there are no humans on the moon. With or without a person behind the wheel, the LTV will be instrumental in searching for water ice and other lunar resources, which in turn will help NASA select the best site for the more permanent elements of base camp.
Astronauts will be able to explore the moon without spacesuits
While the LTV’s autonomy and remote-control capabilities are powerful innovations, its fundamental design likely won’t deviate much from the rovers that came before it. To drive the open-top LTV, astronauts must don their spacesuits, and that’s where NASA’s concept for a lunar mobile home enters completely uncharted territory from an engineering standpoint.
NASA’s RV-like concept, dubbed a habitable mobility platform, will have a pressurized interior with life support systems, meaning passengers can travel safely without spacesuits. This makes life easier for astronauts, as donning a spacesuit can take hours and isn’t always comfortable, and it also means manned forays across the lunar surface can last longer and travel farther than ever before. In unpressurized rovers like the LTV, the duration of the mission is limited by the duration of oxygen in each astronaut’s spacesuit.
The final design of the RV has not yet been decided, so experts can’t say what it will look like, but the goal is to allow multiple astronauts to live and work inside the vehicle for up to two weeks.
Chavers says that the habitable mobility platform will be delivered to the moon between one and three Artemis missions after the debut of the LTV. Concluding the first mission of the habitable mobility platform, Chavers says the vehicle will remain on the moon for use on future missions.
Moon rocks and moon dust could shape base camp’s appearance
The lunar cabin seems poised to capture the world’s imagination, as science fiction has been conjuring up what dwellings in space might look like for generations. While the design hasn’t been finalized, Chavers says NASA is looking at modular and inflatable structures as ways to create larger habitable spaces on the moon that are compact and lightweight in transit.
Another intriguing possibility Chavers mentioned is a large-scale 3-D printer that uses moondust or rock as its raw material. He says a machine like this could make bricks or other shapes and assemble a dwelling from scratch or augment one brought from Earth. In fact, Chavers says a prototype 3D printer is building a test structure in Houston.
Clive Neal, a geologist at the University of Notre Dame who has studied samples of lunar dust, says that lunar dust or rock may play an especially important role in shielding astronauts from radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field filter out most of this harmful radiation, but the Moon has no atmosphere or magnetosphere, so any humans staying there need extra protection. Neal says it may take up to six feet of lunar material to give astronauts enough protection from radiation, which at high doses can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.
Beyond harvesting water and building materials from the moon, NASA is also looking to extract oxygen, which is surprisingly abundant in lunar rocks and metals like aluminum, says Desai. This is all part of developing a “live off the land” capability on the moon that could make a base there more self-sufficient and help it serve as a resupply station for Mars-bound spacecraft. But as humanity redefines its relationship with the moon, National Air and Space Museum curator Teasel Muir-Harmony wonders if it might be food for thought.
As Muir-Harmony recounts, seeing our home planet rise above the lunar horizon, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders commented, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and more importantly, we discovered Earth.” Now, he says, “NASA keeps using the word ‘sustainable’ in relation to the base camp concept, and I wonder if trying to use lunar resources to make our presence on the Moon sustainable might make us think differently about the sustainability of our presence”. here in the earth.”