The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) discovered pockets of water on the surface of the Moon, a monumental step in the hopes of conducting deep space exploration. Large amounts of water were found at the southern pole, most notably in the Clavius Crater, and it represents a key step in boosting hopes of establishing a lunar base. Experts estimate there is up to 15,000 square miles worth of water on the surface and say that it could also be used for fuel, drinking water and oxygen during the Artemis programme.
But that same project – which aims to “send the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024” – may not be possible under a Biden administration.
Mr Biden, who is going head-to-head with US President Donald Trump on November 3, served as Vice President to Barack Obama – a strong supporter of putting humans on Mars.
Despite this, the Biden campaign has released almost no details about space exploration, except announcing in August: “We support NASA’s work to return Americans to the Moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our Solar System.”
While it seems highly unlikely Mr Biden will cancel Artemis, it may not go entirely to its current plans.
NASA could be handed a blow by Mr Biden
Joe Biden has been tight lipped on plans for NASA
In March 2019, Vice President Mike Pence said NASA would put astronauts back on the Moon within five years, but the Space Launch System is still unfinished and the lunar space station is behind schedule.
The space agency has not selected a lander either, with several private companies vying to have their proposed concepts selected.
What is more likely could be a decision to push the timeline back a few years, despite recent breakthroughs.
In January, the Democratic leadership for the House Science Committee put forward a bill for the ‘2020 NASA Authorisation Act’ that would reschedule an Artemis crewed landing for “no later than 2028”.
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Barack Obama had keen interest in Mars
It would also direct NASA to develop its own lunar lander instead of using one built and developed privately, and would require the lander to run through at least two flight tests before being used for a human mission.
It called for NASA to follow up with a crewed Mars orbit mission as early as 2033.
Congresswoman Kendra Horn said: “Let me be crystal clear – this bill is not about rejecting the Artemis programme or delaying humans on the Moon until 2028.
“NASA can still work to safely get there sooner.”
But it received criticism from leading space experts who fear the Democrats are fixated on the Red Planet, but have not outlined any new funding to enable a mission.
Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam responded to the bill in January, stating: “After years of me and so many others urging NASA to get out of [low-Earth orbit] and go back to the Moon and this time to stay, it would be too much to bear to now watch at close range it being ruined by a Mars fantasy, probably while other nations make a lunar land rush.”
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Donald Trump has been the driving force behind US space plans
Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam
And NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has raised concerns that shrinking the role of public-private partnerships would restrict the sort of flexibility that could actually allow NASA to find technologies necessary for returning to the Moon on schedule.
Mr Trump has been the driving force behind recent interest in returning to the Moon, announcing an additional $1.6billion (£1.23billion) on top of the $21billion (£16.1billion) already allocated to the 2020 budget.
He wrote on Twitter in 2019: “Under my administration, we are restoring NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars.
“I am updating my budget so that we can return to space in a big way.”
The extra funding was designed to help the space agency reach the 2024 goal outlined by Mr Pence.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine
Meanwhile, NASA also launched its Perseverance Rover in July, set to land on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021, as part of the US space agency’s Mars 2020 mission.
It is the most advanced probe ever sent to Mars and will help determine whether the planet was once habitable, before collecting key data to help NASA prepare for future human missions to the planet.
But there could be a shift in focus after China launched its Tianwen-1 mission with the same destination in its sights.
When the rocket nears its destination, it will release the orbiter to scan and map Mars from above, while the lander will carry the rover to the planet’s surface.
If everything goes according to plan, China will be the second nation to successfully place an operational robot on Martian soil.
Perceverance launched in July
China is catching up with the US
Professor of Public International Law at the University of Reading, James Green, explained why he believes Mr Trump’s re-election is key for future NASA plans.
He told Express.co.uk: “It is true that the US has recently set out a very ambitious agenda for space exploration going well beyond anything that has been suggested since the first Space Race.
“And I think China is reacting to that on the political level by ramping up their own rhetoric and capabilities.
“But how far the US position will be maintained beyond Trump’s presidency, I’m not certain.
“I can see this sliding away quite quickly after he’s out of office, because to some extent Trump is the driving force, and China is just reacting to that for now.”