Earlier this month, China’s robotic Chang’e-5 spacecraft became one step closer to accomplishing something not done since the Apollo missions of the 1970’s: bring back samples of the moon to Earth. The craft’s landing on the moon’s surface on the 2nd was captured in a panoramic video released by Beijing.
Within hours of landing, the robotic lunar module began its drilling and scooping up samples from the moon’s surface, in an area of the satellite believed to be two billion years younger than the rest of the 4.5 billion-year-old rock.
When the collecting is complete, the mission’s return trip will be similar to the Apollo missions, although it will be piloted by the mission control at the China National Space Agency rather than crew members onboard the spacecraft. After launching from the moon’s surface, the module will rendezvous with the other half of the capsule in the moon’s orbit before returning earthbound.
If successful, the samples returned to earth will provide scientists with their first in-person look at moon material in nearly fifty years, a major scientific breakthrough. But China’s newfound prowess on the moon (Chang’e-5 is one of three Chinese robots currently on the lunar surface) is just a drop in the sea of modern space exploration.
NASA’s Artemis missions later this decade will return humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo, and they’re also contracting with private companies to help bring robotic payloads to the moon as soon as next year.
To do so, a new generation of deep-space rockets is of the utmost priority for NASA and America’s space companies. Much news has been made regarding SpaceX’s Starship, a spacecraft currently in prototype stages that is being built to bring humans to Mars as well as the moon. But the astronauts returning to the moon for the Artemis missions will be onboard a different craft—the most powerful rocket in NASA’s history: the Space Launch System.
Standing taller than the Statue of Liberty on the launchpad, the SLS provides the space agency with considerable upgrades in payload capacity, which allows missions to extend longer than before and transport the supplies that humans will need to live in space and on bodies like the moon.
The design and manufacturing of the spacecraft, like its modern peers, takes advantage of modern advancements that NASA’s older missions didn’t have access to. Data-driven builds, along with machine manufacturing and computer-aided design, allows engineers to track everything on the spacecraft, down to each bolt, from even its mining source across the world.
“We can do as much analysis in a single day as they did on their entire program over years,” says Boeing’s mission management and operation manager. “And with computer-aided manufacturing, we can build parts that are so precise, that they’re literally sculpted to be exactly what they need to be.”
“It’s that level of detail,” he says, “so that you have the assurance that each part is safe.”
Boeing has progressed on with the SLS’s development since the pandemic began, and is set to launch Artemis I next year. The first uncrewed mission will orbit around the moon, while a second will land on the surface. If all goes according to plan, Boeing and NASA will land its first crewed mission in 2024 on Artemis III.
Countries in the Lunar Race
While we’ve been to the moon before, the current lunar race has more than a few incentives driving its rapid development. Scientists have countless reasons for further in-person study of the moon. Doing so provides key clues about our solar system and our own planet, and recent revelations like water ice on the lunar south pole offer intriguing areas of study for astronomers. Likewise, for humanity to live on Mars, extraterrestrial human life must first be accomplished on the moon. The stepping stone for our multi planetary future, the moon is an obvious first step for any future base on another world.
The U.S. and China are not the only two countries vying for a spot on the lunar surface. Within the last year, both India and Israel have launched their own lunar robots; however, both failed to land successfully on the moon’s surface. The failures of these otherwise high-tech and capable space agencies should serve as a warning of the always-existent dangers of space exploration. Nonetheless, America’s public and private enterprises are positioned well for the world’s reintroduction to our own moon and beyond.