It might get a little crowded on the Moon’s south pole as both NASA and China are aiming to land their prospective lunar missions at the same landing sites, hoping to snag some of the limited resources of that region.
NASA recently announced 13 candidate landing regions near the Moon’s south pole for the upcoming Artemis 3 mission which aims to land a man and a woman on the Moon by late 2025. Artemis 3 has its sights set on the Moon’s south pole, a particularly valuable area since it may contain water ice in its shadowed regions. Water on the Moon could be a major resource for future space exploration as it could be used to make rocket fuel, increasing the Moon’s potential to become a gateway to more distant destinations like Mars.
Naturally, NASA isn’t the only one wanting to take advantage of the south pole’s resources. In a paper published by the Journal of Deep Space Exploration in China, a group of researchers led by Chang’e-4 lunar mission commander Zhang He identified 10 potential landing spots near the south pole. Unfortunately, there is a bit of an overlap as both NASA and the Chinese researchers target sites near Shackleton, Haworth and Nobile craters as potential landing zones, Space News first reported. China’s upcoming mission to the Moon, however, does not involve astronauts. Instead, Chang’e 7 will include a rover to explore the water ice that may be trapped in the Moon’s south pole. The mission is scheduled for a 2024 launch date.
Finding the right spot to land on the Moon’s south pole is tricky, as it has areas covered in darkness and others bathing in light. This light-to-darkness ratio varies over distances that are as small as a few miles, and spacecraft ideally want to land in lit areas for thermal control but also want to be close enough to the shadowy regions where the water may be trapped. So, options are limited for both NASA and the Chinese Space Agency.
Making this lunar parking spot situation even more awkward is the fact that the U.S. and China are on opposite ends of the race to the Moon with competing space programs. Both countries are aiming to build lunar bases on the Moon’s south pole sometime in the 2030's, with no signs of potential cooperation between them. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized China’s approach to space, saying the country was secretive and not open to cooperation in an interview with NBC that aired August 28. A day later, Chinese media outlets criticized NASA’s lunar program after the Artemis 1 mission launch suffered a delay.
Both countries are working towards narrowing down the list of potential landing spots as the date to the lunar missions launch gets closer, but it’s not clear what will happen if they end up in the same area on the south pole.