Updated Sep 4, 2023 - Science

The Moon renaissance is here

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The Moon is in the midst of a renaissance defined by new science, more nations aiming for the lunar surface and a booming effort to establish industry beyond Earth.

Why it matters: The Moon's unique scientific samples and possible resources are now a major focal point for exploration and industry.

  • By collecting its rocks, scientists can learn more about how our solar system formed and whether energy can be extracted from the lunar surface.
  • By mining its resources, companies can potentially create rocket fuel that will allow them to travel deeper into the solar system.
  • By sending missions and people to its surface, nations can show off their technical prowess to others on Earth.

What's happening: Last Wednesday, India's robotic Chandrayaan-3 mission made the nation only the fourth to ever touch down successfully on the Moon, just days after Russia's Luna-25 lander crashed into the lunar surface.

  • Japan is also planning to launch a robotic mission to the lunar surface.
  • NASA and China are both aiming to land crewed missions in the same southern polar region of the Moon where India just landed, where ice and sunlight could be plentiful enough to create rocket fuel and support further exploration.
  • Intuitive Machines, a company that holds a contract with NASA, is planning to launch its lander to the lunar surface in November. Another company, Astrobotic, is gearing up for its own Moon launch.

Between the lines: Lunar science is receiving renewed attention.

  • NASA just announced a team of scientists who will help direct the geology priorities of the Artemis program back to the Moon, advising the space agency on how the Artemis III astronauts should use their time on the surface collecting Moon rocks and cataloging them.
  • The role of the team is "to be there through the whole process to make sure that we are finding every little last creative way to use the constrained resources" of the mission, Brett Denevi, a planetary geologist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and the principal investigator for the geology team, tells Axios.
  • The time allotted to astronauts for scientific work on the Moon and the amount of sample to return are limited.

The big picture: "We are living in a lunar renaissance," NASA Moon scientist Noah Petro tells Axios.

  • Moon science as a field is growing, he added. "When I started in this field, in grad school, there were maybe a dozen ... young lunar scientists. Now there are 30, 40, 50 — there's a plethora of talent."
  • The growing field is bolstered by the promise of new samples expected to be returned to Earth from the lunar surface and decades of orbiting missions that have created detailed maps of the Moon to contextualize any new findings.
  • NASA is taking samples brought back from Apollo that have yet to be analyzed out of storage to allow scientists to glean all they can from them ahead of future landings and in anticipation of new samples.

The intrigue: The Moon could also be the key to understanding the evolution of the Earth itself.

  • Earth's crust is constantly roiling, reforming and burying older rock, but the Moon has more or less remained the same for billions of years.
  • "We have such poor record-keeping on the Earth of early impact flux and what was going on early on in the solar system when there were huge impactors striking the Earth-Moon system, at times when life was starting to emerge," Denevi said.
  • Getting new samples back from the Moon could help scientists figure out exactly what effect those impacts may have had.
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