What’s next for the moon

MIT Technology Review’s What’s Next series looks across industries, trends, and technologies to give you a first look at the future. You can read the rest of our series here.

We’re going back to the moon. And back. And back. And back again.

It’s been more than 50 years since humans last walked on the lunar surface, but starting this year, an array of missions from private companies and national space agencies plan to take us back, sending everything from small robotic probes to full-fledged human landers.

The ultimate goal? Getting humans living and working on the moon, and then using it as a way station for possible later missions into deep space.

Here’s what’s next for the moon.

Robotic missions are leading the charge

More than a dozen robotic vehicles are scheduled to land on the moon in the 2020s.

On July 14, India launched its Chandrayaan-3 mission, a second attempt from the country to land on the surface of the moon after Chandrayaan-2 crashed there in 2019. That landing attempt will come in August. 

Hot on its heels are two private companies in the US, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, both partly funded by NASA to begin moon landings this year. Astrobotic’s Peregrine One lander is scheduled  to carry a suite of instruments (some from NASA) to the moon’s northern hemisphere later this year to study the surface, including a sensor to hunt for water ice and a small rover to explore. And Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will attempt a lunar first.

“Our primary objective is to land softly on the south pole region of the moon, which has never been done before,” said Steve Altemus, the company’s CEO, after NASA recently asked the company to change the original planned landing site. The mission will include a telescope to image the Milky Way’s center from the moon, another first, and some demonstration lunar data centers. The launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is provisionally set for September.

Both companies have bigger ambitions. In 2024, Astrobotic hopes to send a NASA rover called VIPER to drive into some of the moon’s permanently shadowed craters and hunt for water ice. Intuitive Machines’ second mission, meanwhile, will deploy a small hopping vehicle that will jump into one of these pitch-black craters and carry a drill for NASA.

“There’s quite a lot of excitement around that,” says Xavier Orr, the CEO of the Australian firm Advanced Navigation, which will provide the landing navigation system for Nova-C and the hopper. The craters, he adds, are thought to be “the most likely places of finding ice on the moon.”

These private companies are backed by millions of dollars in government money, driven by NASA’s desire to return humans to the moon as part of its Artemis program. NASA wants to expand commercial moon activity in the same way it has helped fund commercial activity in Earth orbit with companies such as SpaceX.

“The goal is we return to the moon, open up a lunar economy, and continue exploring to Mars,” says Nujoud Merancy, chief of NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office at the Johnson Space Center in Texa. The ultimate plan, Merancy says, is to foster a “permanent settlement on the moon.”

Not all are convinced, especially when it comes to how companies will make money on lunar missions outside of funding from NASA. “What is the GDP of lunar activities?” says Sinead O’Sullivan, a former senior researcher at Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. “Some commercial economy may evolve, but it’s kind of hard to tell.”

 Humans are going back, too

In November 2024, if all goes to plan, the Artemis II mission will send a crew of four astronauts—three American and one Canadian—around the moon on a 10-day mission in NASA’s Orion spacecraft, launched by the agency’s mighty new Space Launch System rocket.

Humans have not traveled to the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. The goal, however, is “not just returning, but staying and exploring,” says Merancy. Artemis II “is really ensuring that the vehicles are ready for longer-duration missions in the future.”

Also in November 2024, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled to carry the first modules of NASA’s new space station near the moon, called the Lunar Gateway. Gateway is meant to support Artemis missions to the moon, although the exact relationship is still somewhat murky.  The first humans back on the moon are due to land in 2025, aboard a SpaceX Starship vehicle as part of Artemis III.

Much work remains to be done, however, not least proving Starship can launch from Earth (following a botched test flight in April 2023) and be refueled in space. This leaves some in doubt of the 2025 time frame. “A landing in 2029 would be really optimistic,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.

NASA, meanwhile, has contracted both SpaceX and more recently Jeff Bezos’s competing Blue Origin for its planned landings at the moon’s south pole to prospect for water ice, which can be used both as drinking water and maybe as rocket fuel so that the moon could become a staging point for missions to more distant destinations in the solar system, such as Mars.

But the goal “isn’t just Mars,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. “It’s learning how to live and work in deep space and creating a sustained presence further than Earth orbit.”

Moon laws need updating

International laws will need to be updated to cope with this uptick in lunar activity. At the moment, such activities are largely governed by the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, but many of its particulars are vague.

“We are getting into areas like private space platforms and lunar mining facilities, for which there really is no clear government precedent,” says Scott Pace, a space policy expert at George Washington University and former executive secretary of the National Space Council in the US. “We have to be responsible for activities in space.”

Chris Johnson, space law advisor for the Secure World Foundation in the US, expects to see discussions at the United Nations over the next five or so years to iron out some of the issues. “We’re going to need norms for radio quiet zones, lunar roadways between valleys and craters, and landing pads on the moon,” he says. Or perhaps if emergencies break out with astronauts from different countries on the moon, “everyone has to take shelter at the nearest shelter, whether it’s yours or another’s,” he says.

NASA has begun tentative steps toward this goal, getting countries to sign up to its Artemis Accords, a set of guidelines about lunar activities. But they are not legally binding. “We only have a set of principles,” says Johnson.

Lunar missions could come thick and fast while these discussions take place, potentially moving us into a new dawn of space travel. “With the International Space Station, we learned how to live and work in low Earth orbit,” says Muir-Harmony. “Now there’s this opportunity to learn how to do that on another celestial body, and then travel to Mars—and perhaps other locations.”

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