13. August 2019

Fu­ture mis­sions to the Moon

A large-scale international project: the 'Gateway'
A large-scale in­ter­na­tion­al project: the 'Gate­way'
Image 1/3, Credit: Nathan Kaga / NASA

A large-scale international project: the 'Gateway'

A large-scale in­ter­na­tion­al project: Con­tri­bu­tions to the 'Gate­way' lu­nar or­bital plat­form will be made by all mem­bers of the Mul­ti­lat­er­al Co­or­di­na­tion Board (MCB) of the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion ISS. The Ori­on crew cap­sule, whose ser­vice and pow­er seg­ment is be­ing built in Bre­men, is to fly to the sta­tion, and the en­er­gy sup­ply sys­tem of the 'Gate­way' plat­form might al­so be built in Ger­many.
The Russian space probe Luna 25
The Rus­sian space probe Lu­na 25
Image 2/3, Credit: Lavochkin

The Russian space probe Luna 25

Rus­sia, too, has plans to re­turn to the Moon. Lu­na 25 is the space probe with which the pro­gramme from the So­vi­et era will be re­sumed. Un­der Lu­na 25, Rus­sia in­tends to ex­plore the Moon’s south po­lar re­gion and help with prepa­ra­tions for a robot­ic sta­tion. Pos­si­ble launch dates cur­rent­ly dis­cussed are the years 2021 and 2022 to 2024.
Berlin’s PTScientists aim to pay a visit to our Earth’s companion in the year 2020
Search­ing for ev­i­dence: Berlin’s PTSci­en­tists aim to pay a vis­it to our Earth’s com­pan­ion in the year 2020
Image 3/3, Credit: PTScientists

Searching for evidence: Berlin’s PTScientists aim to pay a visit to our Earth’s companion in the year 2020

Once ar­rived, they in­tend to ex­plore the Apol­lo 17 land­ing site in the Tau­rus Lit­trow Val­ley in the south east of the Mare Seren­i­tatis, us­ing two light-weight, 30-kilo­gramme rovers. It is the place where the last two hu­mans so far, Eu­gene Cer­nan and Har­ri­son H. Schmitt, land­ed on the Moon in the year 1972. They took home a num­ber of very im­por­tant rock sam­ples, which have giv­en sci­en­tists an in­sight in­to the ge­ol­o­gy and his­to­ry of the Moon. The basin came in­to be­ing some 3.8 bil­lion years ago. About 100 mil­lion years lat­er, la­va from the Moon’s in­te­ri­or be­gan to well up, flood­ing low-ly­ing ar­eas. These la­va flows were of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by erup­tions of vol­canic ma­te­ri­al which cov­ered the area with small glass beads. Cer­nen and Schmitt brought some of these glass beads, al­so known as 'or­ange soil', back to Earth.

Beyond the crystal ball

The USA, Russia, China, Europe, Israel, India, Japan and South Korea – all these nations have plans for lunar missions. In collaboration with others or working on their own, they all intend to send spacecraft or, once again, astronauts to the surface of our planet’s companion, pursuing a variety of different goals. Whereas India’s Chandrayaan-2, Japan’s SLIM and Kaguya 2, and the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter are scientific probes, the Americans see the Earth‘s natural satellite as a springboard for a future crewed mission to Mars. ‘This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint. We will establish a foundation for a future mission to Mars’, said US President Donald Trump on December 11, 2017, as he signed the first of four Space Policy Directives, whereby, initially, American astronauts were to land on the Moon by 2028. Meanwhile, on March 19, 2019, the US administration in the person of Vice President Michael Pence cut that deadline short by another four years, so that American astronauts are now to revisit the Moon by 2024. Orion, the European-American spacecraft, is to make that mission possible. Other activities such as the Lunar Resource Prospector mission, which had already been previously agreed upon, will now not be implemented as planned. Its science assignment, which is of great importance for further lunar research, will now be contracted out to a commercial Moon programme. Trump will in general leave a considerable part of major exploratory missions to the private sector.

In its ‘Space Policy Directives’ and its plans to build the ‘Gateway’ – a lunar orbital platform to be assembled from 2022 onwards, intended for science missions and as a stopover on the way to Mars – the USA is moving the Moon back into its focus. China, by contrast, plans to launch two major technologically complex, robotic sample-return missions, Chang’e-5 and Chang’e-6. Russia, by continuing its Luna programme, intends to land five probes on the Moon, Luna-25 to Luna -29, Luna-27 in collaboration with the European Space Agency, ESA. Both the Chinese and the Russian mission aim to advance the exploration of the far side of the Moon with the intention to build a fully robotic station there.

But China and Russia wish to land humans on the Moon as well. While the ‘Middle Kingdom’ aspires to be the first nation to send a human to the far side of the Moon by 2030, Russia will settle for a Russian citizen landing on the Moon in the same year – anywhere. In pursuit of that goal, preparations are already underway in the development of its super-heavy launcher, ‘Yenisey’. Europe, although also intending to have a mission of its own at some point, is for now relying on strong partners. Getting to the Moon, robotically or astronautically, is only possible as a joint effort. The same applies to Germany: in order to stay in business, Germany should go for making significant contributions to the science and technology of major partner missions. Maybe one day, in a cooperation with another country, this might open the door to sending a German astronaut to the Moon.

Private Moon dreams – pipe dream or soon-to-be fact?

Not only space agencies have picked the Moon as a target; private players, too, plan to pay a visit to our satellite. What triggered this euphoric ambition was the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), a contest that took place from 2007 to 2018 and kicked off a minor private-sector race to the Moon: anyone who would be first to land a probe safely on the Moon and cover a distance of 500 metres with a rover there before December 31, 2017 – originally before December 31, 2012 – would receive 20 million dollars in prize money. However, no one actually got to win the ‘grand prize’, for the contest was officially closed on January 23, 2018. Until then, several teams had raised a total of 300 million dollars to solve the tasks that had been set. By contrast, a mere six million dollars were paid in prize money to teams who had reached certain intermediate goals.

Yet, the sense of euphoria continued way beyond the contest. A German team called PTScientists, for example, won one of the coveted milestones in 2012 and continued its Moon programme after the end of GLXP. Under its ‘Mission to the Moon’, the Berlin team plans to put down on the Moon two ‘Audi Lunar Quattro’ rovers weighing only 30 kilogrammes each, which, equipped with a solar-powered four-wheel drive, are destined to explore the landing site of Apollo 17. With the ALINA landing probe (Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module) acting as a radio node between the rovers and Planet Earth, Vodafone plans to set up the first 4G LTE network on the Moon. This would permit controlling the vehicles with a joystick almost in real time as well as transmitting scientific data, images, and videos. As ALINA is capable of carrying a payload of around 100 kilogrammes, there will be room for additional hardware like cube sats or experiments that may be booked in with PTScientists. One of them will be the X-SCIENCE experiment of TU Braunschweig enabled by fundings of DLR Space Administration. This innovative laser instrument mounted underneath one of the rovers will show for the first time Additive Layer Manufacturing with lunar materials on the surface of the Moon. Moreover, the enterprise is already taking part in an ESA study about a robotic mission to the Moon.

In the USA, too, former GLXP contestants have been successfully taking part in NASA’s requests for tender. On November 29, 2018, the American space administration announced its intention to procure commercial Moon landers from up to nine US companies under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, which is endowed with 2.6 billion dollars. Two of these companies are former GLXP teams. This commercial approach is part of the current American Moon strategy. One step further along than the US companies was the Israeli GLXP contestant SpaceIL, the first private organisation to reach an orbit around the Moon with its landing probe ‘Beresheet’ on April 4, 2019. But before the probe, the lightest so far at 600 kilogrammes, was able to touch down gently on the surface on April 11, 2019, it developed engine problems during its descent, and the probe made a crash landing. However, this failure cannot keep billionaire and co-initiator Morris Kahn from trying again in two or three years’ time. Besides, the lander that is built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is now being offered to commercial customers as part of a collaboration with the German space company OHB.

The plans pursued by space visionaries Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are even bolder. Their two companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, aim to send tourists to the Moon. One of the first SpaceX customers is Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire art collector. Together with a group of artists, he is scheduled to set out for the Moon in 2023 on the first flight of the ‘Starship Hopper’ carried by a ‘Super-Heavy’ launcher, to orbit the Moon at an altitude of 200 kilometres. For the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, the Moon is nothing but a springboard for Mars, where he plans to send humans on his new super-rocket as early as 2026 to set up a permanent colony there. Blue Origin, on the other hand, is currently working on its lunar module called ‘Blue Moon’ as well as on the super-heavy ‘New Armstrong’ launcher. Creating an Amazon-like delivery service for the Moon, Bezos hopes to land at the south pole of our satellite to support the construction of a base there.

  • Martin Fleischmann
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Ger­man Space Agen­cy at DLR
    Strat­e­gy and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
    Telephone: +49 228 447-120
    Fax: +49 228 447-386
    Königswinterer Straße 522-524
    53227 Bonn
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