NASA is going back to the Moon, but first the space agency needs to decide where it’s going to park. On Friday, it revealed 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 lunar surface.
Each region is about 10 by 10 miles (15 by 15 kilometers), and they each contain multiple landing sites with a radius of around 328 feet (100 meters). “A region might be considered as a series of parking lots, while a site is a single parking spot for a lander,” Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist at NASA, said during a press briefing on Friday.
NASA gathered data on those regions using its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which launched in 2009 and is still orbiting the Moon. LRO has been mapping the Moon’s polar regions, and the orbiter was essential in helping NASA figure out where it can land during future Moon missions. Artemis 3 has its sights set on the Moon’s south pole, an area that has been of high interest since it may contain water ice in its shadowed regions. Water on the Moon is considered a massive advantage to future space exploration, providing astronauts with a valuable local resource that would support a sustained presence on the lunar surface.
The south pole has areas that are permanently cloaked in darkness and other areas that are constantly bathing in sunlight. This light-to-darkness ratio varies over distances that are as small as a few miles. “Finding locations of greater-than-average amounts of light enables us to design systems that take advantage of light for energy and thermal control,” Bleacher said. “Similarly, locations of permanent shadow which are unique to the poles provide opportunities to water and other volatiles that are trapped there.” So while the south pole does have certain advantages, NASA also has a lot of technical issues to consider when deciding where to land.
“Apollo landing sites were in the sort of central part of the near side, and now we’re going someplace completely different, in different and ancient geologic terrain,” Sarah Noble, Artemis lunar science lead, said during the briefing. NASA formed an agency-wide team of scientists and engineers who looked over decades of data to evaluate the accessibility of landing regions on the south pole based on ensuring a safe landing, ease of communication, and proper lighting conditions. The team also considered the capabilities of NASA’s Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft, and SpaceX’s Starship human landing system. After two years of deliberations, the team came up with the 13 landing regions that are close to the south pole.
The space agency is working toward narrowing this list as the date for the Artemis 3 mission launch gets closer. Currently, that mission won’t happen before 2026. Some of the landing sites are only accessible during specific launch windows, so having options gives the space agency more flexibility to launch the Artemis 3 mission throughout the year.
NASA’s SLS rocket is currently sitting tall on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida awaiting its launch for the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission. The mission is currently slated for August 29, with backup windows available on September 2 and September 5. Artemis 2, which is currently scheduled for late 2024, will have a crew aboard the Orion capsule for the trip to the Moon but won’t land on the surface. That’s the job of Artemis 3, which could launch as soon as 2026, in which NASA plans to land a man and a woman at the south pole of the Moon.
Unlike Apollo, the Artemis program doesn’t just want to land humans for brief stints. Its goal is to establish and sustain a presence on and around Earth’s natural satellite. This would be a stepping stone to a much more ambitious project: the first human journey to Mars.