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Humans heading back to the Moon

Editorial

Nearly half a century after astronauts last walked on the Moon, a new age of lunar exploration is dawning where the goal is not just to get people and machines on or near to Earth's satellite, but also to sustain operations there.

A recent article in the Economist newspaper outlined the “Moonrush” that begins in earnest this year.

South Korea is set to launch its first lunar spacecraft, an orbiter, mid-year. The United Arab Emirates hopes to be the first Arab country to operate a craft on the Moon. Its rover will be delivered by a Japanese firm's landing craft, launched on a rocket from US company SpaceX, and accompanied by a baseball-sized rover from Japan's space agency. India also plans to put a spacecraft on the Moon this year; as does Russia, which (as part of the Soviet Union) last landed a vehicle on the Moon in 1976.

In June last year, China and Russia announced they intend to build a joint Moon base and space station in lunar orbit. Their plan does not see humans on board until 2036. China's Chang'e programme, which achieved the first landing on the far side of the Moon in 2019, aims to start establishing a robotic research station on the Moon in 2024.

The most ambitious Moon efforts are America's. Nasa aims to return people to the Moon by the middle of the decade. Instead of flying direct, like the Apollo missions of 1968-1972, the plan is to build a lunar-orbiting space station known as Gateway which will host a shuttle for descent to the surface of the Moon.

This project is named Artemis, after the Moon goddess who was the twin of the Sun god Apollo, and after years of delay it is set to take off. The coming year should see at least 18 Nasa-sponsored lunar missions, some of which will deliver equipment and supplies for later use. Gateway is scheduled to go up in 2024: lifted into Earth orbit first then, powered by huge solar arrays, ion thrusters will push it slowly away from Earth until, 11 months later, it arrives in Moon orbit.

To start with the station would be inhabited for just one month a year, moving to two months. This compares to the International Space Station that has been continuously inhabited for 21 years, but it orbits a mere 400km or so above Earth — the Moon is about 400,000km away (and outside the radiation-deflection provided by Earth's magnetic field).

If all goes well, Artemis III will land on the Moon in 2025 with a crew of four who will stay for six days. The longer-term goal is to establish Artemis Base Camp, where four people could stay for two months.