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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.

Go deeper

Updated Jan 15, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Earth's climate went off the rails in 2021, reports show

Temperature departures from average in degrees Celsius during 2021. (Berkeley Earth).

Global warming became local to a new and devastating extent in 2021, with the year ranking as the sixth-warmest on record, according to new, independent data from NASA, NOAA and Berkeley Earth.

Why it matters: Each year's data adds to the relentless long-term trend, which shows rapid warming due overwhelmingly to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions during the past several decades in particular.

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker