Five decades after Apollo 11, 2019 was the year we started to focus on how to get humans back on the lunar surface, says Leah Crane
18 December 2019
AS THE 50th anniversary of the first human on the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap”, 2019 was always going to be an important year for the moon. It turned out to be even bigger than expected – and perhaps the start of a new era of exploration of our natural satellite.
The year started with China making history by putting the first lunar lander on the moon’s far side. On 3 January, the Chang’e 4 lander successfully touched down, providing the first glimpses we have had from the surface there. It even brought a small biosphere containing cotton seeds, which sprouted there before being plunged into darkness.
These plants weren’t the moon’s only victims. Two small landers crashed on the surface: Israeli start-up SpaceIL’s Beresheet in April and India’s Vikram in September. The nations narrowly missed out on becoming the fourth country to land on the moon after the Soviet Union, the US and China. Beresheet would have also been the first privately funded lander to do so.
Neither mission was a complete failure. Vikram rode with the Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft, which is still in orbit and has its own scientific instruments to map the moon’s surface and study its atmosphere. Beresheet made Israel just the seventh nation to orbit the moon.
One major goal of both landers was to learn more about the lunar surface, particularly the water ice near the moon’s south pole that makes it a promising target for human exploration. In fact, in 2019, US vice president Mike Pence announced a directive to send American astronauts, including the first woman on the moon, to its south pole by 2024 in what has been named the Artemis programme.
That marked an acceleration in NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon, and the agency has already started work, selecting three landers to carry scientific instruments to the surface in preparation for eventually sending people again. One of those landers, built by Astrobotic, is also contracted to carry the UK’s first rover to the moon – it is being built by UK start-up SpaceBit, as announced at New Scientist Live in October.
The same month, it was revealed that three of space flight’s biggest private players, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are teaming up to build a lander to get humans to the lunar surface.
There are obstacles, both technical and political, between now and putting people on the moon for the first time in half a century. But the Artemis programme has spurred the space industry to action, and even if it is a long journey to make the return, the odyssey has already begun.
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