Why is NASA going back to the moon?

New York“Let’s go.” This is the slogan that NASA is using before the debut flight of its new rocket towards the Moon, which it plans to launch this Monday at 12:33 p.m. Catalan time. It’s a phrase repeated by agency officials, added as a hashtag in social media posts and proclaimed on banners at the Kennedy Space Center launch site in Florida. If you’re not a space lover, wanting to send astronauts to the moon might bore you. Because? Because we’ve already been there.

Why should NASA repeat what it did half a century ago, why haven’t astronauts set foot on the moon in years, and why has NASA invested about $100 billion to get back there?

NASA officials argue that the moon missions are central to its human spaceflight program and are not just a repeat of the Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972. “It is the future, when NASA will land the first woman and the first black person,” said Bill Nelson, the space agency’s administrator, during a press conference. “And on these increasingly complex missions, astronauts will live and work in deep space and develop the science and technology to send the first humans to Mars.”

Artemis mission outline.

The aspirations of Mars

That’s a change from 2010, when President Barack Obama gave a speech saying NASA should aim for more ambitious destinations, like asteroids and Mars, and go beyond the Moon. “We’ve been there,” Obama insisted. Today’s show is named Artemis, named for it during the Trump administration. In Greek mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister.

The first step in the program is this Monday, when the big rocket, known as the Space Launch System (SLS, for its acronym in English), will be launched with the Orion capsule on top, where in future missions the astronauts For now this flight is unmanned, to test the system and correct any problems that appear on the ship before putting humans on board. The plan is to orbit Orion around the Moon before returning to Earth. In the event of rain or technical setbacks, the operation would be postponed to Friday or Monday of next week.

In addition to the mission’s role as a testing ground for the technologies needed for a much longer trip to Mars, NASA also hopes to encourage companies looking to establish a regular business of flying scientific instruments and other payloads to go to the moon And, incidentally, inspire students to enter fields of science and engineering. “We explore because it’s part of our nature,” says Nelson.

It’s not just NASA that wants to go to the Moon now. In recent years, China has successfully landed three robotic missions on the Moon. India and an Israeli nonprofit also sent devices there in 2019, though both crashed. Also, a South Korean orbiter is heading towards the Earth satellite. Nelson says China’s expanding space ambitions, which include a lunar base in the 2030s, also motivated the Artemis mission. “It bothers us that they can tell us: “This is our exclusive zone. Stay out” – says the head of NASA -. So yes, this is one of the reasons that made us decide.”

For scientists, the renewed focus on the Moon promises a future of success in obtaining new data. Rocks collected by astronauts during the Apollo missions changed planetary scientists’ understanding of the Solar System. Analysis of radioactive isotopes provided precise dating of several regions of the Moon’s surface. The rocks also revealed a surprising origin for the Moon itself: It appears to have formed from debris ejected into space when a Mars-sized object crashed into Earth 4.5 billion years ago .

But for two decades after Apollo 17, which was the last moon landing—in December 1972—NASA turned its attention away from the satellite, a place that to many seemed like a desolate world. , dry and airless and pointed towards the Solar System, towards Mars and the multitude of moons of Jupiter and Saturn. However, scientific interest in the Moon never completely disappeared. In fact, its desolate nature means that rocks that hardened billions of years ago remain in almost pristine condition. “As scientists, we understand that the Moon is in some ways a Rosetta Stone [la que va permetre desxifrar els jeroglífics egipcis]”says David A. Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute near Houston. “It’s the best place in the Solar System to study the origin and evolution of planets.”

Scientists also discovered that the Moon is not as dry as they had thought. Water, frozen at the bottom of eternally dark craters at the poles, is a valuable resource. It can provide drinking water for future astronauts visiting the Moon, and it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen; that is, that it could provide breathable air. Oxygen and hydrogen could also be used as rocket propellants, making the Moon a refueling or staging station for spacecraft to fill their tanks before leaving the Solar System.

The ice, if it were a collection of ancient accumulations over several billion years, could even provide a book on the scientific history of the Solar System. Discovering it led to a renewed interest in the Moon. In the early 2000s, Anthony Colaprete, a NASA scientist, had noted that he thought the Moon was “just a waypoint”.

NASA then put out a call for proposals for a spacecraft that could target the Moon, and from that call the rocket carrying the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probes was launched in June 2009 and LCROSS, which in October landed in Cabeus Crater, near the satellite’s south pole. The mission was considered a success because unmistakable signs of water were found, and scientists using state-of-the-art techniques found water locked in minerals in the ancient rocks of Apollo 15 and Apollo 17.

But Barbara Cohen of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center admits scientists still have many unanswered questions. There are cold regions with ice, but also cold regions that appear to be free of ice. Some places are frozen on the surface and others have ice below the surface; however, the two regions do not always overlap. “We don’t fully understand when or how this water arrived,” he says. This means that scientists also don’t really know how much water there is or how easy it will be to extract it from rock and soil.

Copyright ‘The New York Times’

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