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7 milestones NASA needs to hit to make 2024’s Moon landing a reality

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NASA’s mission to get back to the Moon, known as Artemis, is moving quickly. In a report issued this week, the space agency provided some much-anticipated clarification on the milestones it needs to smash in order to fulfill its ambitions for the mission.

Artemis — sister to Apollo, legendary in NASA’s history — has two phases: the first is getting Americans back to the lunar surface, and the second concerns itself with building sustainable systems on and around the Moon.

It’s a project every bit as ambitious as anything SpaceX and Blue Origin are pursuing, and NASA has an aggressive timeline for getting phase 1 done by 2024. But in a call Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters he was cautiously optimistic the agency would meet their goals.

“2024 is an aggressive timeline. Is it possible? Yes. Does everything have to go right? Yes,” he said.

Here are seven major deadlines that NASA has to hit for Artemis to earn its place next to the Apollo missions.

Early 2021: Fitting the CAPSTONE

The crux of Artemis Phase II is the Lunar Gateway, a planned space station that would orbit the Moon. Essentially an interstellar gas station for spacecraft, the Gateway is one of the most controversial parts of NASA’s plan. CAPSTONE CubeSat will get things rolling next year by making sure the Gateway’s orbit is even possible.

Called a near rectilinear halo orbit, it reaches what NASA calls a “precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon,” which will allow the Gateway long-term stability with only minimal energy.

CAPSTONE (short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment), around 55 pounds and the size of a microwave, will orbit the Moon in NHRO for six months to learn how this orbit would work in reality.

NASA thinks it will be able to leverage data gained from sustaining life on the Gateway to plan for future deep-space destinations like Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.

But the Lunar Gateway is another space station, not a manned lunar lander, which is NASA’s ultimate goal.

Initially part of the 2024 plan, the Gateway has been pushed back. It remains to be seen if CAPSTONE will keep it on track.

Summer 2021: CLPS Earns Its Wings

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS program launched in 2018 to help boost the private space sector. In the summer of 2021, those partnerships start paying off — hopefully.

Despite a recent scathing report from NASA’s own inspector general on the CLPS program, saying that the companies may pose “risks could result in mission failure,” small space company Astrobotic will send 14 NASA payloads to the lunar surface in June 2021. Another private company, Intuitive Machines will send 5 further payloads in October 2021.

If all goes well, those payloads will offer “technology demonstrations that will inform the development of future landers,” NASA says.

November 2021: Artemis I launches

An uncrewed mission, Artemis I will spend around three weeks in space, getting close to the Moon, but not landing on it. Over 1.5 million miles, the mission will test out several key components of the Artemis program: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Orion will get approximately 60 miles away from the Moon’s surface, release 13 CubeSats packed full of instruments hitchhiking aboard, and then head back to Earth for a splash landing.

TBD 2023: Unleashing the VIPER

When the Apollo rockets landed on the lunar surface, it was widely believed that the Moon was bone-dry. Now scientists have definitive evidence of ice on the satellite’s polar regions. Ice, that if it was melted down, could become water. And that water could be transformed into rocket fuel.

An artist's depiction of the VIPER on the lunar surface.

The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will investigate the Moon’s South Pole to better understand the possibilities. Around the size of a golf cart, the VIPER will be sent to the Moon on a CLPS mission. Already delayed a year, NASA hopes its 12-mile journey will discover the origin of the water, as well as its precise distribution.

TBD 2023: Building the Gateway, Parts 1 and 2

If CAPSTONE proves the Gateway can achieve the near rectilinear halo orbit, or a “precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon,” that allows the Gateway long-term stability with only minimal energy, then two features that will bring the Gateway to life could launch in 2023.

NASA hopes the Gateway will be powered by what’s known as the Power and Propulsion Element. It will be able to power the Gateway for 15 years.

Built by Colorado-based company Maxar, the high-power, 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion spacecraft will be, according to the company’s PPE Project Manager Tim Cole, “equipped with the most powerful commercial solar electric propulsion system ever launched.”

Attached to the PPE will be the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, where astronauts will live. It won’t be like the International Space Station, accommodating extended stays. Rather, NASA describes HALO like a “small studio apartment” with life support and command and control capabilities where astronauts can prepare for their trip to the surface.

An artist's depiction of the Lunar Gateway.

An artist’s depiction of the Lunar Gateway.NASA

TBD 2023: Artemis II takes off

If everything goes right up to this point, this becomes the “Apollo 8” moment for a new generation: a crewed flight that will take humans further into space than any previous mission in history, but again, no landing.

They will travel 4,600 miles beyond the far side of the Moon, allowing for testing of deep space communications networks.

TBD 2024: Artemis III

The spacesuits NASA plans to deploy on Artemis missions, unveiled in 2019.

The spacesuits NASA plans to deploy on Artemis missions, unveiled in 2019.ASA/Joel Kowsky

This is the big one. If everything goes right on Artemis II, and the Gateway is in place and functional, then this is the ticket to getting humans walking on the Moon once more. There is no specific date set for this historic launch, but NASA has made it plain that they intend to send the first woman, and a man, to the Moon.

There are few questions that will need to be figured out in the meantime — will the craft dock with HALO first for a pit stop, or land on the surface directly? Watch this space.

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