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There are 13 different regions near the lunar south pole where the first woman and next man on the moon could land through NASA’s Artemis III mission in 2025, according to the agency.
The announcement comes as NASA is preparing for the launch of Artemis I, the first uncrewed mission that will embark on a journey around the moon on August 29. The inaugural mission will test out the new Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft and other components ahead of the crewed Artemis II and Artemis III missions planned for 2024 and 2025.
The Artemis program is designed to return humans to the moon for the long term and eventually pave the way for crewed missions to Mars.
While Artemis II will carry a human crew on a journey around the moon, Artemis III will be the first mission to return humans to the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972.
But this time, mission astronauts will be venturing somewhere no human has gone before when they explore the lunar south pole.
“It’s a long way away from the Apollo sites,” said Sarah Noble, Artemis lunar science lead for NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “All six Apollo landing sites were in the sort of central part of the near side (of the moon). And now we’re going someplace completely different in ancient geologic terrain.”
Returning to the moon
Each of the 13 regions identified by NASA is home to multiple potential landing sites.
“Selecting these regions means we are one giant leap closer to returning humans to the Moon for the first time since Apollo,” said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for the Artemis Campaign Development Division at NASA Headquarters, in a statement.
“When we do, it will be unlike any mission that’s come before as astronauts venture into dark areas previously unexplored by humans and lay the groundwork for future long-term stays.”
The regions are all located within six degrees of latitude of the moon’s south pole and all of them have intriguing geologic features, according to NASA officials. And each site corresponds to all of the possible launch opportunities for Artemis III, since landing areas are closely connected to when a spacecraft takes off from Earth.
Scientists and engineers across NASA assessed the lunar south pole using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the moon since 2009, as well as other scientific findings.
The team considered crew safety when evaluating potential landing areas, including accessibility, terrain, lighting and the ability for crews to communicate with Earth.
The 13 possible landing sites will be illuminated by sunlight over the course of the six-and-a-half days planned for the Artemis III surface excursion. Sunlight is key when considering the return of humans to the moon because it can provide a power source and protect astronauts from extreme temperature variations that take place there.
Exploring the unknown
The moon’s south pole is of interest because it has never been explored by humans before, and its permanently shadowed regions could harbor resources like ice.
“Several of the proposed sites within the regions are located among some of the oldest parts of the Moon, and together with the permanently shadowed regions, provide the opportunity to learn about the history of the Moon through previously unstudied lunar materials,” Noble said.
The shadowy regions may not have been touched by sunlight for billions of years, Noble said.
The Artemis III mission has specific science objectives, like landing close enough to a permanently shadowed region for crews to go on a moonwalk, collect samples and carry out scientific analysis to learn more about the composition, depth and amount of water ice there.
“Developing a blueprint for exploring the solar system means learning how to use resources that are available to us while also preserving their scientific integrity,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for NASA, in a statement.
“Lunar water ice is valuable from a scientific perspective and also as a resource, because from it we can extract oxygen and hydrogen for life support systems and fuel.”
The Artemis team will refine its site selections after conducting conferences and workshops to receive more input about the potential landing sites, as well as consulting with SpaceX to ensure that the company’s Starship lunar lander could touch down there. The sites will be confirmed once a target launch date has been set for Artemis III.