May 31, 2022 - Science

NASA's push to return to the moon

Illustration of NASA logo on moon

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

NASA's grand plans for the moon will be tested with the launch of a tiny satellite next month.

Why it matters: NASA wants to send astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the 1970s as part of its Artemis program. But unlike Apollo, this program — expected to land people on the lunar surface in 2025 — isn't designed to be a series of one-off missions.

  • Instead, NASA wants to develop Artemis as a way to have a sustainable presence on the surface of Earth's nearest satellite, and next month's mission will be one of the first tests of how exactly that will work.

Driving the news: Among other tasks, the microwave-sized CAPSTONE satellite will effectively act as a pathfinder mission to test out a new type of orbit around the moon for a future space station.

  • CAPSTONE is expected to launch no earlier than June 6 and spend about four months in transit to its position around the moon.
  • NASA mission managers hope to use CAPSTONE's unique orbit — called a near-rectilinear halo orbit — for the Gateway space station, but the path has never been tested before, so CAPSTONE is expected to learn more about its stability.
  • "We need to verify that this orbit is stable to maintain the Gateway because we're going to have humans there, so you need to make sure that it is safe for those astronauts," NASA's Ali Luna Guarneros told me.

Between the lines: NASA is also using the spacecraft as a way to test what might be needed to safely operate a fleet of satellites orbiting the moon in the future, as the space agency's footprint on and around the lunar body increases.

  • CAPSTONE is designed to prove out technology that would allow various probes to communicate with one another when orbiting the moon.
  • The satellite will use its CAPS system to autonomously navigate with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
  • "If you think of an airport where you have different airplanes coming in and out, CAPS will do the same thing for the moon," Luna Guarneros said, stressing that decreasing human input like this will make it easier to have many spacecraft around the moon at once.

The big picture: NASA's plans for the moon are starting to take shape, with hardware — like CAPSTONE — actually heading to the launch pad and new contracts being awarded.

  • NASA is planning to perform a test of its Space Launch System moon rocket and Orion capsule on a launchpad in Florida around June 19.
  • This "wet dress rehearsal" will allow mission controllers to load the rocket with propellant and run through each step the system will need to go through before launch without actually taking flight.
  • On Wednesday, NASA is planning to announce contracts for private companies tasked with building spacesuits designed for the moon and use in orbit.

What to watch: The space agency will need to hit key milestones to reach its goal of a 2025 moon landing.

  • First, an uncrewed Orion capsule will launch on a trip to orbit the moon before coming back for a landing on Earth.
  • Next, Artemis II is expected to take a crew around the moon without landing.
  • The Gateway is expected to launch in 2024, with the first crewed moon landing scheduled for 2025.
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