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2022 is full of first steps to the moon

Most of those missions revolve around
Artemis, NASA’s multibillion-dollar effort to return astronauts to the moon
later in the decade and conduct routine science missions on its surface in
preparation for farther treks to Mars (a far more ambitious endeavour that will
probably not happen in this decade). But before astronauts make the moonshot, a
series of rocket tests and science missions without humans will need to be
completed.

2022 is the year for those initial steps
toward the moon. Two new rockets central to NASA’s lunar plans will launch to
space for the first time, each with more power than the Saturn 5 rocket from
the Apollo program. And other countries are expected to join the march to the
moon as well.

NASA’s Gigantic Moon Rocket Debut

After years of development delays,
NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, could make its first journey to space —
without any humans — as early as March.

The mission, called Artemis 1, will mark
the first in a series of flights under NASA’s Artemis program by SLS, NASA’s centrepiece
rocket system for getting moonbound astronauts off Earth. For Artemis 1, SLS
will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to send a capsule named
Orion around the moon and back, rehearsing a trajectory that will be performed
by Artemis 2, the subsequent mission that is scheduled to carry astronauts
sometime in 2024. The third mission, Artemis 3, will result in a moon landing.

Like any major space mission, Artemis 1
has been delayed several times. It was initially planned for 2020, then pushed
to various times throughout 2021 because of development challenges and setbacks
caused by the pandemic. NASA blames the most recent delay to March on the need
to investigate and replace a faulty internal computer controlling one of the
rocket’s four main engines.

SpaceX’s Next Starship Test

Central to NASA’s efforts to return
humans to the moon is SpaceX’s Starship, which will be used as a human lunar
lander in roughly 2025. It will be the agency’s first astronaut mission to the
moon’s surface since 1972. Designed as a fully reusable rocket system, Starship
also stands at the centre of Elon Musk’s ultimate goal of ferrying humans to
Mars and will be crucial to SpaceX’s revenue-generating satellite launch
business.

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But first, Starship must reach orbit.
That test flight, also with no people on board, could happen sometime in
mid-2022.

Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, had hoped to launch
Starship to orbit in 2021. But a protracted Federal Aviation Administration
review of the environmental impact of SpaceX’s launch site in Texas and
development delays with the company’s new Raptor engines have postponed the
test flight. The FAA review is expected to finish in late February and
determine whether deeper environmental reviews will be necessary, or whether
SpaceX can resume Starship launches.

A successful orbital test will be a key
step in NASA’s moon program. Astronauts launching atop the SLS inside the Orion
capsule will rendezvous with and transfer to Starship above the moon to descend
the rest of the way to the lunar surface. Starship would later liftoff from the
moon, then transfer the astronauts back to Orion for the journey home to Earth.

NASA-Funded Moon Robots

Three robotic moon landers under a NASA
program are scheduled to make their way to the lunar surface this year — if
development goes as planned.

Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based
company, and Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, are each aiming to send small
lunar landers carrying various scientific payloads to the moon by the end of
this year. Their landers were developed under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload
Services program — part of the agency’s effort to rely on private companies for
sending cargo and research instruments into space with the hopes of stimulating
a commercial market.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, a
six-legged cylindrical robot, is expected to launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket
early this year carrying a dozen payloads to the lunar surface. One of the
instruments on board will measure the plume of lunar dirt kicked up during
Nova-C’s landing, an experiment that could help engineers prevent messy lunar
landings in the future. The lander will also deploy a small rover built by
Spacebit, a British company. In the fourth quarter of this year, the company
could also send a second mission to the moon’s surface.

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Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander is a boxy,
four-legged lander with an onboard propulsion system that will ease itself onto
a basaltic plain on the sunlit side of the moon’s northeastern quadrant
carrying 14 research payloads. The company says Peregrine will be ready for
launch aboard United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket in the middle of this
year.

But whether it launches on time is
dependent on when the rocket will be ready to fly. Vulcan’s debut has been held
up by the engine supplier for the rocket, which is Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’
space company. Its new BE-4 engines have yet to be delivered.

Testing a Complex Lunar Orbit

Rocket Lab, which builds rockets for
small launches, is poised to send in March a microwave-size satellite, or
CubeSat, for NASA called CAPSTONE from the company’s launch site in New
Zealand.

The satellite will study an orbit around
the moon that a future space station called Gateway, being developed by NASA
and other space agencies, will reside in sometime in the next decade.

CAPSTONE will also test new navigation
technology designed to calculate a spacecraft’s position relative to other
spacecraft. Traditionally, satellites use onboard cameras to determine their
whereabouts relative to star formations or the apparent position of the sun.
Instead, CAPSTONE will try to glean its position in space by communicating with
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, an imaging satellite launched in 2009.

South Korea’s First Moonshot

The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, a
box-shaped satellite, will be South Korea’s first foray to the moon as the
country aims to bolster its technical know-how for conducting missions in
space.

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Led by the Seoul’s space agency, the
Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the spacecraft carrying six main tools is
scheduled to launch in August on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and arrive in lunar
orbit by December. It will spend a year surveying the moon’s geology and
examine from afar the chemical composition of lunar dirt.

The satellite will also carry a Lunar
Terrain Imager, which will survey potential landing sites for a subsequent
South Korean robotic lunar lander mission.

Even More Global Visitors

Lunar robots from three other countries
— Russia, India and Japan — will also try to make their way to the moon this
year.

The Luna-25 lander, possibly launching
in mid-2022, will mark Russia’s first moon landing since 1976, when the
Soviet-era Luna-24 lander collected lunar samples to return to Earth. The
lander will study the lunar soil and test technologies for future Russian moon
landings.

India plans to send the Chandrayaan-3
lander and rover to the moon in the third quarter of this year, attempting its
third moon mission after the lander-rover bundle from India’s Chandrayaan-2
mission crashed in 2019.

A Japanese space company, ispace,
intends to send its Mission 1 lander to the moon sometime in the second half of
this year. If the landing is successful, it will deploy a pair of rovers.

One, a small, four-wheeled robot named
Rashid, is built by the United Arab Emirates. Another smaller robotic explorer
built by Japan’s space agency is the size and shape of a basketball. It can
transform into a rover after deployment, dividing itself in two and using its
halves as wheels to rove around and study lunar dirt.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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