The year 2022 will be marked by a series of missions to the Moon, after a year without a single lunar landing.
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NASA, the US space agency, will kick-start its Artemis program and is sponsoring several more missions to the Moon to deliver equipment and supplies that will be used by future astronauts.
India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates will also launch lunar missions this year — and, like these countries, several companies will also participate in the race to reach Earth’s natural satellite.
All of these will be unmanned spaceflight and most will be laying the groundwork for a sustainable human presence on the surface of the Moon in less than a decade.
But that’s not the ultimate goal either — creating a lunar space station is just one step on the way to manned missions to the red planet, Mars.
Zoë Leinhardt, an astrophysicist at the University of Bristol in the UK, believes that this year will mark the beginning of a new space race involving new countries.
While many of these missions aim to examine the Moon itself, others have higher aspirations.
“Some missions have long-term goals set further afield, and missions to the Moon are both a proof of concept and an opportunity to test new technologies and collaborations,” says Leinhardt.
But, after all, what is each mission and what is its purpose?
Here’s what the year 2022 has in store for the Moon:
NASA’s ambitious Artemis space program aims to get humans back to the Moon by 2025.
In March of this year, the Artemis-1 mission will begin laying the groundwork for this ambitious goal.
The mission will be unmanned, with the exception of a “Moonikin”, which will occupy the seat of the commander of Artemis 1. It is a realistic dummy named after Arturo Campos, an engineer who was instrumental in bringing Apollo 13 safely back to Earth.
Campos’ role will be to test out the same spacesuit that Artemis astronauts will wear during launch, entry and other dynamic stages of their missions.
NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) — the world’s most powerful rocket — will launch the mission and take the Orion spacecraft around the Moon to test the safety of the crew vehicle.
NASA will be closely watching data from Orion’s heat shield during its high-speed re-entry to Earth at nearly 2,760 degrees Celsius.
Later this year, another key element of the Artemis program will take an important step.
NASA scientists will be closely watching the Orion spacecraft — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Capstone — the acronym for Navigation Experience and Technological Operations of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System — is the pioneering mission of the Artemis program.
NASA will launch a satellite the size of a microwave oven or a CubeStat, Capstone’s spacecraft, also in March 2022 to test a moon-centered orbit, rotating along with it as it orbits Earth.
The goal is to ensure the safety of astronauts on future trips.
‘The ultimate goal is Mars’
The information that will be gained from this test will help validate operational models for another key component of the Artemis program — the Gateway.
NASA describes it as “a multi-purpose outpost orbiting the Moon that provides essential support for the long-term human return to the lunar surface.”
If all goes as planned, in 2025, Artemis-3 should make the first moon landing since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
The mission is also slated to include the first female astronaut and the first black person to set foot on the Moon.
Hannah Sargeant, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida in the US, notes that this focus on the Moon is part of a bigger picture.
The Gateway is also intended to be a support base for deep space exploration.
“Robotic missions to the Moon are one of the first steps on that roadmap, leading to a lunar space station, a moon base, and ultimately manned missions to Mars,” she says.
Missions from India, Japan and United Arab Emirates
Other countries and companies are also eyeing the moon this year.
Some will be conducting research, while others will be handing out supplies and equipment.
Two years after a failed moon landing attempt, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is planning a lunar exploration mission called ‘Chandrayaan-3’.
A spacecraft carrying a lunar robot and a stationary lander will launch in the third quarter of 2022.
Japan, meanwhile, has two ambitious lunar projects for this year.
Jaxa, the Japanese space agency, plans to launch a lunar lander in April 2022.
Called SLIM (acronym for “Intelligent Landing Module for Investigating the Moon”), it will demonstrate precise landing techniques and recognize lunar craters by applying technology from facial recognition systems.
The X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) space telescope will also be on board.
And Japanese space company ispace Inc. will also send a lander to the moon in the second half of 2022. Mission 1 (M1) is part of Jaxa’s commercial lunar exploration program ‘Hakuto-R’ through from which two explorer robots will be deployed.
One is built by Jaxa herself — a small-scale two-wheeled robot that will explore the surface of the Moon.
The other robot that the Japanese company will deploy is from the United Arab Emirates, called Rashid. It is a four-wheeled vehicle tasked with testing the Moon’s soil.
Russian Luna 25 Mission and South Korean Lunar Orbiter
The Russian mission Luna 25 will land at the south pole of the Moon — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Russia’s lunar mission for 2022 is called Luna 25.
It will be the country’s first mission to the moon’s surface in 45 years — and it should be the first mission to land on the satellite’s south pole. This is the area NASA is considering for manned lunar missions.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos has scheduled the launch for July 2022.
The Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the space agency of South Korea, will launch the Korean Lunar Pathfinder Orbiter (KPLO) to the Moon a month later in August 2022.
KPLO will study the surface of the Moon and help plan future missions to the lunar poles.
NASA commercial robots
Private companies are also in the race for the moon.
Under a NASA program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), the companies will compete to provide transport services to the surface of the Moon.
Houston-based Intuitive Machines plans to use a six-legged lunar robot called Nova-C to transport payloads to the surface of the Moon in early 2022.
A later mission will be launched by Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic Technology in mid-2022.
The company’s Peregrine Mission 1 will carry scientific research payloads with a box-shaped four-legged lander.
What is the purpose of these missions?
Sargeant says many of them will examine the lunar environment, with the aim of finding ways to protect crews and equipment from any threats, such as lunar dust and intense solar wind.
The missions will also give scientists the opportunity to test prototype equipment and experiments that can be used to generate resources such as water.
“We want to make sure these machines work before we send our teams there, who will depend on the precious supplies they generate,” says Sargeant.
“Ultimately, these supplies can be used to produce the fuel needed to send advanced missions to Mars.”
“The Moon also acts as a testing ground for technologies we’d like to use one day on the red planet. It’s much closer to home, just three days away, than the at least six months it takes to get to Mars.”