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Why is NASA going back to the Moon?

“Let’s go.”

That’s the catchphrase NASA is using in the run-up to its rocket’s debut flight to the new moon, which could launch Monday at 8:33 a.m. ET. It’s a phrase repeated by agency officials, added as a hashtag in social media posts and proclaimed on banners strung around the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

If you’re not a space buff, sending astronauts back to the moon might seem like a big yawn.

Why? we already went

Why should NASA repeat what it did half a century ago, especially since astronauts won’t be landing on the moon for several years, and by then NASA will have spent about $100 billion?

NASA officials today argue that lunar missions are central to its human spaceflight program and not simply a repeat of the 1969-1972 Apollo moon landings.

“It’s a future where NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon,” said Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, during a news conference this month. “And on these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space and develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”

That’s a change from 2010, when President Barack Obama gave a speech at the site where Americans launched to the moon and said NASA should aim for more ambitious destinations like asteroids and Mars and go beyond the moon.

“We’ve been there before,” Obama said.

Today’s program was called Artemis by NASA leaders during the Trump administration. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo. The first step in the program will be the next test flight of the lunar rocket, known as the Space Launch System, with the Orion capsule on top where astronauts will sit during future missions. This uncrewed flight, in which Orion will circle the moon before returning to Earth, is to work out any problems with the spacecraft before getting people on board.

In the event that a technical or weather problem prevents the rocket from taking off on Monday, you can try again on the following Friday or Monday. Forecasters on Saturday predicted a 70 percent chance of favorable conditions for launch.

In addition to the mission’s role as a testing ground for technologies needed for a much longer journey to Mars, NASA also hopes to boost companies looking to establish a stable business flying scientific instruments and other payloads to the moon. and to inspire students to enter the fields of science and engineering.

“We explore because that’s in our nature,” Nelson said in an interview.

It’s not just NASA that wants to go to the moon these days. In recent years, China has successfully flown three robotic missions to the moon. India and an Israeli nonprofit also sent countries in 2019, although both collapsed. A South Korean orbiter is on the way.

Mr. Nelson said China’s expanding space ambitions, which include a lunar base in the 2030s, also motivated Artemis. “We have to worry about them saying, ‘This is our exclusive zone. Stay out,’” he said. “So, yeah, that’s one of the things we look at.”

For scientists, the renewed focus on the moon promises a bonanza of new data for years to come.

Rocks collected by astronauts during the Apollo missions revolutionized planetary scientists’ understanding of the solar system. Radioactive isotope analysis provided precise dating of various regions of the moon’s surface. The rocks also revealed a surprising origin story for the moon: It appears to have formed from debris ejected into space when a Mars-sized object slammed into Earth 4.5 billion years ago.

But for two decades after Apollo 17, the last moon landing, NASA turned its attention away from the moon, which to many seemed like a desolate, dry, airless world. He shifted his focus to other places in the solar system, such as Mars and the multitude of moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

However, scientific interest in the moon never completely disappeared. In fact, its desolate nature means that rocks that hardened billions of years ago remain in nearly pristine condition.

“As scientists, we understand that the moon is, in a sense, a Rosetta stone,” said David A. Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute near Houston. “It is the best place in the solar system to study the origin and evolution of the planets of the solar system.”

Scientists also discovered that the moon is not as dry as they thought.

Water, frozen at the bottom of eternally dark craters at the poles, is a valuable resource. It can provide drinking water for future astronauts visiting the moon, and the water can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen.

Oxygen could provide breathable air; oxygen and hydrogen could also be used as rocket propellants. Thus, the moon, or a refueling station in orbit around the moon, could serve as a stopover for spacecraft to refill their tanks before heading out into the solar system.

The ices, if they were ancient accumulations over several billion years, could even provide a scientific history book for the solar system.

The growing knowledge of the ice brought a renewed interest in the moon. In the early 2000s, Anthony Colaprete, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said he thought of the moon “only in passing.”

NASA then launched a call for proposals for a spacecraft that could accompany the moon with the upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. dr Colaprete, who at the time was primarily involved with climate models of Mars, proposed the Lunar Crater Observation and Detection Satellite, or LCROSS, which he thought could confirm hints of water ice that had been detected by a pair of lunar spacecraft. in the 1990s.

LCROSS would steer the upper stage of the rocket that launched the mission into one of the polar craters at 5,600 miles per hour and then a small follow-on spacecraft would measure what caused the impact.

“It was a pretty crude sampling method,” Dr. Colaprete said in an interview.

But NASA liked the idea and selected it. In June 2009, the rocket carrying the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS was launched. That October, LCROSS made its deadly dive in the Cabeus crater, near the moon’s south pole.

A month later, Dr. Colaprete had her answer: there was indeed water at the bottom of the Cabeus, and quite a lot.

Instruments on an Indian orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, also found unmistakable signs of water, and scientists using state-of-the-art techniques found water locked in the minerals of ancient Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 rocks.

But Barbara Cohen, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said scientists had a lot of unanswered questions.

There are cold regions with ice, but also cold regions that appear to be free of ice. Some places have frost on the surface and others have ice below the surface, but the two regions don’t always overlap. “We don’t fully understand when or how that water got there,” she said.

That means scientists also don’t really know how much water there is or how easy it will be to extract the water from the surrounding rock and soil.

dr Colaprete also continues to work on the moon. “The community has grown in the last two decades,” he said. He is now the principal investigator for the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, a robotic vehicle that will land near the south pole in late 2024 and venture into some of the dark craters for a closer look, including drilling a meter into the I usually.

“One of our main goals is to understand the origin and forms of water on the Moon,” said Dr. Colaprete.

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