In October 2024, NASA will send astronauts to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era. After setting up the orbit with their Orion spacecraft, a team of two astronauts ("the first woman and the next man") land in the southern polar region of the moon. Over the course of a week, these astronauts will explore and study one of the region's many permanently shadowed craters.
As the first manned mission to the moon in over fifty years, this and subsequent missions will pursue a number of scientific objectives. These goals were set out in the Artemis III Science Definition Team Report published earlier this month. This report is a summary of the science plan that was commissioned by NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) for the Artemis III mission.
The way back to the moon
The process of defining these goals began back in September when NASA's SMD Planetary Science Division put together the Science Definition Team (SDT). This team was tasked with evaluating the objectives for the Artemis III mission to achieve the scientific goals formulated by NASA and recommending the necessary research approaches, important surface science activities and operational concepts.
Diagram of the Artemis III mission and its objectives. Photo credit: NASA
Their ratings were based on the four fellowship guiding documents, which consisted of the LEAG's US Lunar Exploration Roadmap, the Scientific Context for Exploring the Moon (2007), the LEAG Advancing Science of the Moon, and the Visions and Journeys for Planetary Research in the decade (2013-2022).
The SDT also considered recommendations from the Planetary Science Decadal Survey (2013-2022) and white papers from the scientific community. These articles recommended nearly every type of lunar science and experiment, from dark matter detection and the effects of lunar gravity on mice, to radio astronomy and the return of lunar ice samples.
In its final report, submitted on November 6th and made available to the public on December 4th, the SDT identified seven overarching goals that encompass all of the scientific goals identified. These goals include:
Understand planetary processesUnderstand the character and origin of polar volatiles of the moonInterpret the impact history of the Earth-Moon systemDiscover the record of the ancient sun and our astronomical environmentMaintain the universe and the local space environment from a unique locationPerform experimental science in the lunar environment; Investigate and attenuate researching risksArtist's impression of astronauts collecting samples from moon ice. Image credit: NTL / HeroX
As the authors noted in the Introduction section of their report:
“The experiences from the six Apollo expeditions from 1969 to 1972 – together the field geology, the creation of test packages on the lunar surface and the samples brought to earth for analysis – have redefined our understanding of the solar system. In the 21st century, international interest in the moon has increased again.
“These 21st century results show that the moon is not a barren and dormant world – it is a world with unprecedented opportunities for new scientific discovery and abundant opportunities for commercial activity.
Breakthrough Discoveries … have strengthened the status of the moon as the cornerstone of planetary research and increased the need for a comprehensive program to study and use the moon that will fuel economic growth, promote international collaboration, and expand human knowledge. "
Return of samples
Based on these goals, the authors of the report published 15 results and corresponding recommendations for Artemis III. In particular, an “optimal sample return program” is highlighted, with which lunar rocks can be brought back to earth for analysis. From this follows from the first recommendation:
“Astronauts should take an Apollo-like course in geology and planetary science that includes both field and classroom components to enable optimal geological characterization of the lunar sampling sites on site. A dedicated team of scientists should work in a terrestrial Artemis III Science Mission Center with real-time audio and one-way video in real time between the crew and the Science Mission Center. "
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the moon. Credits: NASA
This is in line with the 2020 annual LEAG results meeting, which recommended that the Artemis III mission obtain samples of lunar material that exceeded the average mass of the Apollo astronauts they brought – at least 150 kg) Previous studies have indicated that a sample of this mass would be necessary to aid a wide range of analyzes and to maximize scientific yields.
They also emphasize how a “carefully curated catalog of samples” on Earth would enable future scientific discoveries, when technological advances and new analytical tools and techniques are made available. The moon rocks returned by the Apollo astronauts undoubtedly confirm this. Decades later, analysis of these samples still reveals things about the formation and evolution of the moon!
They also emphasize that the samples obtained should be of different nature and "largely representative of the complex geology of the South Pole region". Therefore, it is recommended that the Artemis III astronauts be trained and equipped to collect a variety of surface and subsurface samples. This is especially important when you consider that lunar ice deposits extend deep below the surface.
Next, they recommend carefully coordinating in-situ analysis and sampling to maximize scientific yields. In essence, this means that astronomers should prioritize volatile samples based on how their removal, transport, and curation result in the loss of these elements. Fittingly, they also emphasize the need for lightweight, double-sealed vacuum containers to transport them home.
NASA has already started an incentive competition via HeroX for solutions to this challenge – the NASA Lunar Deep Freeze Challenge. NASA has also invested in 14 companies for solutions as part of its fifth competitive "tipping point" requirement. Obviously, NASA and its affiliates are keen to bring back samples from Mondeis.
The report also includes a number of recommendations for surface operations during the mission. This includes establishing long-lasting power and communication capabilities in the South Pole Aitken Basin that will enable geophysical and environmental monitoring after the astronauts are packed and returned home.
Next, they recommended that NASA set up high-bandwidth communications and data transfer capabilities for the scene. This would allow a support team from the Operations Center on Earth to monitor and assist astronauts in conducting extraterrestrial activities (EVA).
There were also concerns about the bulk assignments that will be available on board the Human Landing System (HLS). In short, the report's authors believe that the lander that transported two astronauts between the Orion space capsule and the surface cannot carry enough tools or payloads to accomplish all of the mission's scientific objectives.
Artist's impression of an Artemis Human Landing System (HLS). Photo credit: NASA
Therefore, the report's authors recommend that NASA develop tools that allow more than one form of analysis or investigation to be addressed at the same time. Alternatively, they recommend NASA to position scientific instruments near the Artemis III landing site in advance so that the HLS does not have to transport everything to the site.
"This could consist of an inert cache of tools / instruments accessible to the crew upon arrival and / or one or more instrumented landers or rovers for environmental monitoring," they write. It was also recommended that packages be positioned at multiple landing sites to collect data and enable future missions to these sites, similar to what was achieved with the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages (ALSEP).
Other important considerations that are highlighted are the mobility of the crew on the lunar surface. Therefore, the report's authors recommend that NASA send a rover or other vehicle to the lunar surface before the Artemis III astronauts arrive. The faithful transmission of data from the surface is paramount, as is the need to establish coordinated mapping and timing parameters.
During the preparations for Artemis III, the authors stress that any existing lunar data should be easily accessible to scientists and mission planners. To this end, they recommend continuing to allocate sufficient funds to maintain the Planetary Data System (PDS), a long-term digital archive, and a range of online tools that allow users to access all of NASA's existing mission and research data.
Illustration of NASA astronauts at the Moon South Pole. Photo credit: NASA
They also recommend that our maps of the southern polar region be seriously spat and polished! This would consist of building mosaics and topographical models using the most current, highest quality data available – i.e. H. The data obtained through missions such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), SELenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE), and Chandrayaan-1.
They also recommended that the landing candidates be further mapped and on a scale carried out in preparation for the Apollo landings. This is particularly important because "(d) the scientific return of the Artemis III mission will be closely linked to the Artemis III landing site" and the desired scientific outcomes "should play an important role in the site selection process."
Another major concern was the need for integration between the various directorates involved in the Artemis III mission and the eventual construction of the Artemis base camp. This includes NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission (HEOMD) Directorate, Science Mission Directorate (SMD), Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), and all external scientific and commercial communities.
To ensure this, they recommend setting up a permanent working group made up of Artemis scientists from the SMD and working closely with representatives from the STMD and HEOMD. They also believe that the LEAG, the Alien Materials Curation and Analysis Planning Team (CAPTEM), and other program analysis groups should use their expertise in dealing with multiple stakeholders and synthesizing goals.
Artist's impression of surface operations on the moon. Photo credit: NASA
These goals and recommendations go well beyond ensuring that the scientific returns for the Artemis III mission are maximized. In the long term, defining what the Artemis program will achieve (and laying the foundations for it) is critical to creating a “sustainable lunar exploration program” for NASA.
Beyond Artemis III, this plan provides for the creation of permanent infrastructure on and in orbit around the moon by 2030. This includes the Artemis Gateway (also known as the Lunar Gateway or just the Gateway), an orbiting habitat that allows regular access to the moon, and Artemis Base Camp – a facility that enables long-term exploration missions on the surface. As the SDT summarize in their report:
“The Artemis III mission, a single mission to the lunar surface, is just a start. Artemis III won't address every one of the goals of the Artemis Science Plan, and it won't answer every open scientific question about the moon – but it will provide a solid foundation for future discoveries. "
You can read the full report and related materials by clicking any of the links below. If interested, you can view the full City Hall of the Artemis III SDT Community below courtesy of NASA's Virtual Institute for Exploration of Solar Systems (SSERVI):