Jan 11, 2022 - Science

To the Moon or bust in 2022

Illustration of three spotlights on the moon surrounded by stars

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Future lunar ambitions, scientific advances and national prestige are front and center for missions to the Moon launching this year.

Why it matters: As the International Space Station program winds down, the Moon is only going to take on more strategic importance in the coming years. The lunar alliances of space-faring nations have implications for science, business and geopolitics back on Earth.

  • Today, "it's not just an elite thing to be able to get to the Moon," according to the Secure World Foundation's Victoria Samson. Access to space has expanded to the point where potential Moon missions are more available to more nations than ever before.

What's happening: This year, at least three countries are aiming to send missions to the Moon.

  • NASA's huge Space Launch System rocket, designed to deliver people to the Moon by 2025 as part of the Artemis program, is expected to make its debut this year with an uncrewed mission that will send the Orion capsule around the Moon and back to Earth.
  • That mission will also carry smaller satellites designed to investigate various aspects of the Moon including ice at the South Pole and solar radiation impacting the lunar environment.
  • South Korea is set to launch its first Moon mission — the robotic Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter — in August, and Russia may send its uncrewed Luna 25 mission to the lunar surface to investigate the Moon's ice sometime this year.

The big picture: U.S. companies are also aiming for the Moon with NASA's support this year, and they're potentially changing the course of lunar science in the process.

  • Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are expected to launch their landers to the lunar surface this year, carrying payloads for NASA and other private companies with them on the journey.
  • This type of mission marks a shift for NASA, according to the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier. "Instead of the mission being designed around specific questions, the science is being done to accommodate what the capabilities of the platforms are."
  • "And so [they're] generalizing the platforms in an effort to increase the cadence and frequency of the science you're getting back but not necessarily specifically designed to answer the most pressing or far-out or specific problems you have."

What to watch: NASA has been courting nations to sign on to its Artemis Accords, which are designed to govern behavior on the Moon.

  • But the space agency has competition. Russia and China are planning to build their own lunar research station in the coming years, possibly pulling other potential international partners into that collaboration instead of Artemis.
  • The first crewed Artemis mission to land on the Moon still has many technical hurdles it will need to clear before launch, including SpaceX developing its own lunar lander under a contract with NASA to use its Starship rocket for launch.
  • Starship is expected to launch its first orbital mission this year, so that will be a key event to watch for anyone keeping an eye on where NASA's lunar ambitions are headed.
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