Eyes on the Moon
As I write, like the rest of the planetary science community, I am eagerly awaiting receipt of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey for 2023–2032. I am truly excited to see the Survey’s recommendations, but whatever the recommendations, I know for sure that the Moon is looming ever larger on our horizon as we continue to ramp up an incredible array of lunar exploration activities.
During the week of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in early March, I was able to make a short visit to the Johnson Space Center. While there, I got to see firsthand the intricate setup that has been used to extract precious gases from one of the last unopened Apollo samples, as part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) program. The gases — which will be studied by scientists so that they can better understand the lunar gas signature — were captured as a prelude to the opening of core 73001, which has been locked in its vacuum-sealed container for 50 years and has now been unveiled. The accompanying half of the double drive tube core sample, which was not curated under vacuum conditions, was opened by the ANGSA team back in 2019. By opening these samples now, through ANGSA, scientists will be able to learn about the landslide deposit in the Taurus Littrow Valley from which they were obtained during the Apollo 17 mission. Just as importantly, however, the ANGSA program is allowing the curation teams to gain valuable experience and lessons in how to best treat and preserve extraterrestrial samples, i.e., before we return a new slate of samples from the Moon during the Artemis missions.
Artemis I, the first of the new lunar missions, is nearing launch readiness. Onboard the launch vehicle will be the Planetary Science Division’s (PSD’s) Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH-Map). This shoebox-sized spacecraft will be the second in our Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) class of missions to launch and it will use a compact neutron spectrometer to map hydrogen enrichments in the lunar south pole’s permanently shadowed regions, at unprecedented spatial resolution. When LunaH-Map arrives in lunar orbit it will join our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which is still proving to be a hugely valuable member of the planetary science fleet, as well as THEMIS-ARTEMIS (a Heliophysics Division mission). Even after almost 13 years in orbit around the Moon, LRO continues to provide astounding data that are widely used for both science and exploration purposes.
The space around the Moon will continue to fill with other missions over the next few years. For example, the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) mission — the first space exploration mission from the Republic of Korea to travel beyond Earth orbit — will launch in the summer of 2022. The scientific payload of KPLO includes the NASA-provided ShadowCam instrument (which will provide high-resolution optical images of the Moon’s permanently shadowed regions), and PSD is proudly supporting a group of nine participating scientists on the KPLO science team. I’m excited to see KPLO lift off this summer and welcome another international agency to the planetary exploration family. I’m also looking forward to another of our upcoming SIMPLEx missions, Lunar Trailblazer, which will use its high-resolution shortwave infrared sensor and imaging thermal radiometer to provide new insights into the character (e.g., form, abundance, and distribution) and origin of lunar water and the Moon’s “water cycle.”
For me, one of the most remarkable recent developments in planetary exploration has been witnessing the birth of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. With this new paradigm for exploration, we have gone from zero to seven planned CLPS deliveries to the lunar surface in just three years. We will start seeing a regular cadence of these deliveries beginning in late 2022, with the first three CLPS flights (one delivery from Astrobotic and two from Intuitive Machines) headed for the Moon’s Oceanus Procellarum, Lacus Mortis, as well as the lunar south pole. Of course, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) is also set to explore and prospect for volatiles at the south pole, in the Nobile Crater region, starting in 2023 after being delivered by an Astrobotic CLPS lander. Late last year we selected eight new co-investigators whose addition to the VIPER team will enhance the mission’s expertise and ensure we achieve the maximum science yield from the rover.
I’ve covered here just a few of the many lunar-focused activities we are currently working at NASA, but I’m glad to note that there are several opportunities for the research and exploration community to be part of our lunar endeavors. For example, each crewed Artemis mission will have a Geology Team that will help define the science objectives and plan the crew activities for each mission, as well as work on pre-/post-mission activities (e.g., traverse planning, returned sample preliminary analyses). Membership of the Artemis Geology Teams will be competitively solicited through NASA’s Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES), with the first call (for Artemis III) intended to be released in ROSES-22. We will also be releasing another ANGSA call in ROSES-22, as well as Artemis instrument calls for crew-deployed investigations and the Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV). Other ongoing lunar-focused ROSES solicitations include Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) calls for future CLPS payloads, as well as the Lunar Data Analysis Program (LDAP), the Development and Advancement of Lunar Instrumentation (DALI) program, and a second call for the Analog Activities to Support Artemis Lunar Operations program. We also anticipate releasing draft text for the next Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) Cooperative Agreement Notice in the coming months.
As we look forward to seeing the first woman and the first person of color step foot on our nearest celestial neighbor during future Artemis missions, I am pleased to see such a strong outlook for the accompanying robotic lunar exploration. We are certainly at the start of something big, and I cannot wait to see the greatness achieved by the Artemis generation. I am comforted to know that the Moon will remain bright in our eyes, our minds, and our hearts for many years to come.
— Lori S. Glaze, Director, NASA’s Planetary Science Division, April 2022