Under the Obama administration, NASA ditched plans for a lunar landing in favor of a future manned Mars mission, but that doesn’t mean the United States isn’t returning to the moon.
NASA’s detailed Journey to Mars blueprint calls for a number of lunar missions to test technology the space agency needs for a successful Mars mission, including automated miners, rovers, and robotic explorers.
It takes six to nine months of travel time to reach Mars and space inside the crew capsule is limited, so astronauts will need to be able to live off the land once they reach the red planet.
It is called In-situ resource utilization, and if NASA can develop and test the necessary technology it means the space agency will be able to establish a more permanent martian base, astronaut Stan Love told the Observer.
“The Moon is roughly a thousand times further than the International Space Station. Mars is roughly a million times further than the Space Station so it’s a huge journey.
“A lot of folks have the idea that the Space Station is kind of halfway to the planets. We’re just barely above the clouds. Mars is an enormous undertaking and not everybody realizes how enormous it is.”
This month, NASA announced it was seeking potential partners who could design robotic payloads it could use to extract resources like water and oxygen from the lunar surface.
If the space agency can figure out how to mine resources from the moon, it can begin to produce fuel and spacecraft in orbit and begin construction of a martian base, according to NASA administrator William Gerstenmaier.
“As humans learn to live and work independently from Earth, future explorers in deep space may be able to make use of resources found naturally in extraterrestrial soil. Robotic missions to the moon could inform our Journey to Mars and how we might use available materials to generate water, oxygen and fuel in space.”
NASA’s Resource Prospector mission aims to be the world’s first robotic miner when it’s launched to the lunar polar region in the 2020s as part of the agency’s Journey to Mars plan.
Elements found on the lunar surface can be converted to rocket fuel, thereby reducing the cost of space travel and the ability to extract important resources from Mars makes human habitation on the red planet much more likely.
Another NASA plan envisions sending robots to Mars to build a martian base camp that will be fully functional by the time human explorers reach the red planet. To test this technology, the space agency plans to use the moon as a proving ground to prepare for a manned Mars mission in the 2030s.
While NASA doesn’t plan to send humans to the lunar surface, astronauts will orbit the moon aboard the Orion crew capsule during the asteroid retrieval mission; an earlier test flight will see an crew-less spacecraft orbit the moon in 2018.
The robotic missions to the moon could also help develop commercial possibilities and encourage private entities to develop a new economy in orbit above Earth, according to NASA administrator William Gerstenmaier.
“There are many stepping stones on the Journey to Mars.”
Otherwise, NASA has decided to leave the moon to Europe and Russia, who are planning an extensive lunar exploration program. Russia announced plans to revive its lunar rover moon exploration program late last month, while the European Space Agency set itself a goal of establishing a moon base by 2040.
The lunar base will act as a research center, refueling station, and possible commercial center for a space-based economy.
What do you think of NASA’s plan to return to the moon with robotic explorers?
[Featured Image by NASA/Liaison]