Recently, there’s been a notable trend of various nations directing their spacecraft toward the lunar south pole. India has achieved a successful landing, whereas Russia faced a setback with a crash during its landing attempt. The United States is gearing up for a crewed landing as early as 2025, while China, too, is competing for strategic landing spots with its uncrewed lander. This newfound enthusiasm is quite a departure from the previous decades when lunar exploration took a back seat.
Several reasons are at play, and some of them inevitably have political implications reminiscent of the circumstances in the 1960s.
A significant catalyst for this renewed interest comes from the passage of time since humans last walked on the lunar surface. Over these years, a remarkable revelation has come to light: the identification of water ice concealed within the shadowy recesses of deep craters near the Moon’s southern pole. This discovery has injected a renewed fascination into lunar exploration – further elaboration on this follows.
Concurrently, NASA’s ambitions to send astronauts to Mars have gained substantial traction. The Moon is now a pivotal stepping stone on this ambitious journey, serving both pragmatic and symbolic roles. The Moon is a practical testing ground where technologies and strategies can be honed, proving indispensable for forthcoming Mars missions. Beyond this, NASA envisions leveraging the Moon, alongside the lunar orbital station known as Gateway, as pivotal waypoints for missions embarking on the significantly more arduous voyage to Mars.
Furthermore, other nations, like China, India, and Russia, have cast their aspirations toward the lunar south pole. While some of these countries nurture long-term dreams of their own crewed Martian expeditions, their immediate objectives include securing the prestige of successful lunar landings.
The lunar south pole. India has achieved a successful landing, whereas Russia faced a setback with a crash during its landing attempt. The United States is gearing up for a crewed landing as early as 2025, while China, too, is competing for strategic landing spots with its uncrewed lander. This newfound enthusiasm is quite a departure from the previous decades when lunar exploration took a back seat.
Why is the south pole of the moon important?
The south pole region of the Moon stands out for its heavily cratered and rough terrain, a stark contrast to the smoother lava plains the Apollo astronauts explored decades ago. However, the key to establishing a self-sustaining Moon base might lie in the deep craters surrounding the pole, which hold something valuable: frozen water in their shadowy depths.
For a Moon base, frozen water has multiple practical uses. It can be melted for drinking, and its molecules can be separated to produce liquid hydrogen and oxygen – essential components for making rocket fuel. This oxygen can also be used for breathing, which is crucial.
While these resources are available on Earth, transporting them from our planet to the Moon is a weighty and costly endeavor due to the expenses associated with launching heavy payloads. Extracting water, rocket fuel, and breathable air from nearby lunar craters makes much more economic sense for a Moon base. Additionally, the advantages extend to missions to Mars. Accessing supplies from an orbiting station like Gateway can minimize the need to launch everything from Earth’s higher gravity, benefiting future space exploration.
Which nations are currently engaged in exploring the lunar south pole?
The main countries involved in exploring the lunar south pole are China, India, Russia, and the United States. However, these countries are also planning to work together with others. For example, China’s upcoming Chang’e-6 lander will carry instruments from France, Italy, Sweden, and Pakistan. India’s next lunar mission will be done in partnership with Japan. NASA is also collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the space agencies of Germany, Israel, Italy, and Japan for its Artemis program.
Here’s a breakdown of the timeline:
- 2024: NASA’s Artemis II mission will see astronauts orbiting the Moon. China’s Chang’e-6 lander will bring back samples from the far side of the Moon.
- 2025: NASA is set to launch the initial two modules of the Gateway space station. During NASA’s Artemis III mission, astronauts will land near the lunar south pole.
- 2026: China’s Chang’e-7 mission will land near the South Pole, equipped with a lander and a flying drone.
- 2027: Russia’s Luna-26 mission, pending the Luna-25 crash fallout, is anticipated to orbit the lunar poles.
- 2026-2028: India’s Chandrayaan-4 mission, in collaboration with Japan, will deploy a rover close to the Moon’s south pole.
- 2028: China’s Chang’e-8 mission is scheduled to land near the lunar south pole to experiment with 3D printing buildings from regolith. NASA’s Artemis IV mission will again land astronauts on the Moon and bring the primary habitat module to the Gateway.
- 2029: NASA’s Artemis 5 mission is expected to transport more astronauts and a lunar rover to the Moon.
- 2029-2031: During NASA’s Artemis 6 mission, additional Gateway modules will be delivered, and astronauts will make lunar landings.
- 2035: China and Russia plan to establish a collaborative lunar base named the International Lunar Research Station.
With the political and economic tensions between China (and Russia) and the United States and the fact that China and the U.S. have their sights set on the same landing spots for Chang’e-7 and Artemis III missions, the race to claim lunar south pole landing sites and establish long-term bases could become quite a tense international competition.
Doesn’t this story sound somewhat familiar?
Yes, it has a familiar ring to it. The current race to explore the southern parts of the Moon is quite similar to the original “space race” that occurred during the Cold War. It’s also comparable to the race in the early 20th century to be the first to reach the South Pole on Earth. Mark Twain summed it up well when he said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”