The year 2022 should mark an important step in the return to the moon. In fact, in a few months the first mission of the new American lunar program, Artemis, will have to take off. What will the process be and what will be the technical and economic challenges of this great space project that will last the entire decade?
Announced as soon as possible for the end of August, the Artemis I mission will see the first take-off of NASA’s new gigantic launch vehicle, the SLS (Space launch system). Originally scheduled for late 2016, the program is experiencing significant delays. Again last April, the last major test before launch, the try wet swimsuit, revealed several technical problems, in particular related to filling the tanks with liquid oxygen and hydrogen. NASA then had to send the launcher back to its assembly building for repair. A new test is scheduled for June 20, 2022 on launch pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
It is only once this test has been validated that the Artemis I mission can take place. It must be said that the SLS is a particularly complex technical object. At 70 tons and almost 100 meters high, it will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, surpassing the iconic Saturn V which took 24 American astronauts to the moon between 1968 and 1972.
Three steps to return to the moon
At the top of the SLS is the Orion spacecraft, in which the astronauts will travel. Orion uses the architecture of its older brother, the Apollo module, but with larger dimensions. Thus, four astronauts will be able to make the journey to the moon during each mission, compared to three at the time of the Apollo.
But initially, an empty Orion ship will be launched by the SLS to test all phases of the mission. It will remain in orbit around the Moon for several days to allow NASA engineers to verify its performance. Thanks to the engines of its service module built by the European Space Agency, it will then return to Earth, to test the critical phases of reentry into the atmosphere and landing.
If this dress rehearsal is successful, a first manned flight will follow during the Artemis II mission, currently scheduled for mid-2024. Like their Apollo 8 predecessors, the mission’s four astronauts will fly over the moon but not land there. We will therefore have to wait for Artemis III to see the real return of a crew to the surface of our satellite. After leaving Orion to land on the HLS (Human landing system), two astronauts, including the first woman to walk on the moon, will spend nearly a week on the surface, more than double the record set during the Apollo missions. Scheduled for 2025, however, the mission could be delayed several years according to the latest report from NASA’s Inspector General.
In parallel, a space station, the Gateway, will be assembled in orbit around the Moon from the end of 2024. Much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), it will be based on a similar partnership between the American, European, Japanese and space agencies. Canadians, but this time without Russia. Ultimately, at least three European astronauts are therefore expected to remain aboard this station in lunar orbit, of which one of the modules is already under construction in France.
Stay long term
The Gateway is one of the major differences between the Artemis and Apollo programs. Offering a transit point and a place for experimentation between the Earth and the Moon, it presents itself as an ingredient for the sustainability of the return to the Moon. Because NASA understood that there was a strong stake in going beyond a symbolic and timely return to the Moon, a race already won more than fifty years ago. As American astrophysicist John Horack pointed out in 2019, the motivations for returning to the moon today are less geopolitical than economic. The Artemis agreements, to which France has just joined, for example explicitly provide for the possibility of extracting resources from the Moon, although the feasibility of the related economic models is still far from being demonstrated.
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The US space agency also encourages the creation of a commercial ecosystem around the moon. In the program Commercial Lunar Cargo Services (CLPS), private actors are thus financed to build ships capable of landing on the Moon and storing instruments or robots, which can also be developed by private companies. Lunar landers from Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic Technology will be the first to attempt the maneuver, in principle by the end of 2022.
By the same logic, the HLS that will deposit the astronauts on the moon has also been subcontracted to a private partner, SpaceX. Elon Musk’s company is not content with just being a service provider and is developing its projects in parallel. For example, he announced that he had sold a ticket to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for a tourist flight in orbit around the moon, easier and cheaper than a moon landing. Originally announced for next year, deadlines are unlikely to be met given the recent setbacks SpaceX has encountered in the development of its new Starship launcher.
A new international momentum
Establishing long-term is also the challenge for the only other two space powers to have successfully landed on the moon: Russia and China. If Russia is a historic player in the moon race, like the United States, China has made a remarkable recovery by landing a lander on the other side of the moon for the first time in 2019, and successfully carrying out a moon rock return. on Earth in 2020.
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China and Russia announced in 2021 that they would join forces to build an orbital station, theInternational Lunar Research Station (ILRS), scheduled for the early 2030s. Several robotic missions are planned until then, including Chang’e 6 on the Chinese side and Luna 25 on the Russian side. The name of the latter mission, scheduled for this fall, is a continuation of the Soviet Luna program, of which Luna 24 was the last representative since 1976. Other countries, India, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Japan, are also planning missions to the moon in the coming months.
In the long run, the idea behind the Artemis program is to reuse the developments made for a first trip to the planet Mars by 2040. It should be remembered, however, that the challenges posed by a manned trip to Mars are oversized. those of the Artemis program which, despite a cost for NASA that is close to 100 billion dollars, is still far from allowing a permanent installation on the Moon. Making our satellite a destination in itself is the challenge that space players will have to face long before they hope to reach the red planet.