The Moon is the closest celestial body to Earth, and yet we have so little information about it. NASA plans to change this with an ambitious new plan. In addition to studying the Moon itself, the space agency plans to set up the Moon to be an eventual outpost for deep space exploration.
Although deep space exploration and Moon pit stops are far in the future, NASA is taking steps today to make this a reality. Step one is to deliver crucial instruments and technology to the Moon.
In September of 2018, NASA announced a call for Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payloads, with a decision date of November 19, 2018. NASA plans to find commercial partners to help it fly to the Moon and drop off equipment. They plan for this to happen as early as 2020, and as late as December 2021.
The long-term plan for lunar exploration
This call for payloads is just one small step towards a future of deep space exploration.
Once payloads have been delivered, NASA plans to send robotic missions to the Moon’s surface with commercial partners. After a series of robotic missions, they plan to install a lunar outpost, called Gateway, with work starting in 2024. Right now the International Space Station is in orbit around Earth. Once Gateway is complete, humanity will have an outpost circling our Moon as well.
But we need supplies to make that a reality. That’s why NASA is purchasing payload services from commercial organizations. They plan to do small payloads at first and then develop specialized lunar landers for larger payloads. The idea is to help prepare the Moon with essential supplies before the planned robot and human missions.
During these missions, NASA plans to investigate and advance our understanding of the Moon. They’ll not only study lunar science, but also extrapolate data to understand our Earth, the Sun, and even the Universe itself. The technology delivered during this payload will help us use the Moon as a testbed for the technology we want to use on future missions to Mars.
The payload will contain equipment to measure:
Heat flow in the Moon’s interior
The Moon’s atmosphere
During our exploration of the Moon, astronauts will look for usable resources to make deep space exploration a reality. They’ll also study seismic and geographic features of the Moon’s structure. Scientists will also study the Moon’s chemistry and mineralogy to better understand its composition and origins. Better data about the Moon will eventually open up the possibility of commercial trips to the Moon, an exciting prospect for humanity.
To infinity and beyond
NASA’s plans are highly significant for space travel. The United States hasn’t done a Moon landing since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.
The Moon is our gateway to the solar system and beyond. While lunar science has scientific value for Earth, it also reveals truths that will be critical to our survival and success in deep space exploration.
On a practical level, the Moon also has the potential to yield resources like water and oxygen. This will be critical for astronauts to remain safe and well-supplied during long expeditions through space. Eventually, the Moon might even serve as a gas station of sorts, where we can refuel and get resources for a long journey ahead.
These payloads mean the future is limitless for lunar exploration. While it’s one small step for NASA, it’s a huge leap towards a future of exploration.