Advances in the domain of space drive a new race to the Moon – 02/24/2024 – Science

Written by Felipe Costa

ArqBahia team of authors.

Moon: New Era of Lunar Exploration Underway

Since the year began, we have already seen three missions attempt to reach the surface of the Moon, involving two countries – two of them successful – and we are only in February. Before the year is over, we should have at least two or three more, possibly more, again involving companies and agencies from various countries.

The next few years should follow this trend, and it is obvious that something new and different is happening. After decades of neglect, we see a vibrant new era of lunar exploration.


Technological Expansion and Exploration of Lunar Resources

There is a confluence of reasons, which include projection of technological capacity, dominance of cislunar space (which extends around the Earth to the orbit of the Moon itself, approximately 380 thousand km from the planet) and exploration of natural resources.

Of these, only the first had a significant impact on the space race of the last century, which put the United States and the Soviet Union on the satellite path.

Things started to heat up in the mid-1990s, when the American orbital probe Clementine, a partnership between the Pentagon and NASA, was sent into lunar orbit in 1994. After analyzing the data, the American space agency presented, in 1998, a very important discovery: there would be water ice in polar craters on the Moon capable of supporting a human colony and a rocket refueling station.

It was something that had not been revealed by any of the previous missions, including those that landed on the Moon, carried out by the USA and the Soviet Union between 1966 and 1976, and changed the rules of the game for a future occupation of the satellite to explore its resources.

Lunar Competition and Future Prospects

Since then, a new race has been established to return to the Moon, this time for a sustainable and lasting stay on its surface.

In the USA, the Bush administration launched the Constellation project in 2004, which would end up being a precursor to the current Artemis, which aims to take humans back to lunar soil by the end of the decade (currently the first landing is scheduled for 2026, but tends to be delayed ).

Similarly, in the early 2000s, the ascendant Chinese space program produced a concrete plan to develop human spaceflight (achieved in 2003), a robotic lunar program (started in 2007), and the establishment of its own space station in Earth orbit. low (built between 2021 and 2022) and a manned lunar program (with the first landing scheduled for before 2030).

In a competition that resembles the folkloric race between the hare and the tortoise, the Chinese have been gradually gaining ground over American dominance in space. They have already achieved unprecedented achievements, such as the first robotic landing in the hidden hemisphere of the Moon (in 2019), and, if the Artemis program delays further, they could very well be the first to take astronauts to the lunar soil in the 21st century.

Innovation and Commercial Space Exploration

While China benefits from consistency and firmness of purpose in its plans (despite a smaller budget), the Americans have suffered from constant changes of direction in their space program, according to the administration. If George W. Bush started the trajectory of returning to the Moon, Barack Obama decided to focus on asteroids and Mars, and then Donald Trump returned to focus on the Moon, which (fortunately for the program) was maintained during the Biden administration.

To compensate for these uncertainties, increased by budget overruns, Americans are betting on central tools of capitalism to generate results: competition and innovation. Hence the current era of commercial space exploration was born.

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