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Artist’s impression - Orion spacecraft

Artemis 1 unmanned mission to orbit the Moon and return the crew capsule to Earth. Artist’s impression shows the Orion spacecraft (crew capsule and service module) being propelled out of Earth’s orbit by the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). Image credit: NASA

On April 16th 1972 – 50 years ago – the penultimate manned lunar mission Apollo 16 was launched. After the next, Apollo 17, interest in the Moon declined to near zero, but this year alone should see a large and diverse collection of exploratory vehicles heading back; wars, Covid-19 pandemic, energy shortages, chip shortages and general economic catastrophes permitting.

Artemis I

The big event of the year will be the first launch of NASA’s Artemis program, probably in May. Artemis is all about sending human astronauts back to the Moon and perhaps later on, to Mars. Artemis I is an unmanned test flight for the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft. The SLS is a large rocket, more powerful than Apollo’s Saturn V even in its lower-powered Block 1 format. Orion will orbit the Moon for just under a week while on-board instruments measure radiation levels amongst other things. On the way to the Moon, ten CubeSats will be released, acting as platforms for experiments and technology demonstrators. If all goes well, the Artemis program will progress rather like its Apollo predecessor:

Artemis II (2024): First crewed mission in free-return trajectory around the Moon.

Artemis III (2025): Crewed lunar landing.

Artemis IV (2026): Crewed mission to the yet-to-be-deployed Lunar Gateway station in Moon orbit.

CAPSTONE

Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) is a 12-unit CubeSat to be placed in Moon orbit by a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. Commissioned by NASA and launching in May, its purpose is to check that the Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) proposed for the Lunar Gateway is gravitationally stable.

Artist’s impression of CAPSTONE in Moon orbit

Artist’s impression of CAPSTONE in Moon orbit.
Image credit: NASA/Advanced Space

Peregrine Lander

Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lander will fly to the Moon early this year aboard a Vulcan Centaur rocket from the ULA. The Vulcan is a new design and this will be its certification flight. Funded under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, the lander will be packed with commercial experimental equipment including a robotic ‘spider’ called ‘Asagumo’ built by UK-based company Spacebit. This four-legged rover is designed to explore a lunar lava-tube; although with a communication range of only 10m, the landing will have to be pretty accurate! Given a new rocket, untried lander and an unusual rover design, an awful lot of fingers are going to be crossed.

Artist’s impression of Peregrine

Artist’s impression of Peregrine in WiFi communication with a number of Spacebit Asagumo-type spiderbots, although only one will be sent on this technology-proving mission. Asagumo will be taking surface measurements, HD video, and lidar scans.
Image credit: Spacebit

Nova-C IM-1 Lander

Scheduled for launch by SpaceX Falcon in the summer is Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission for its Nova-C lunar lander. Also funded under the CLPS program, it will carry a number of experimental packages and possibly a wheeled rover from Spacebit acting as a base-station for a group of their spiderbots.

Artist’s impression of a Nova-C lander

Artist’s impression of a Nova-C lander on the Moon.
Image credit: Intuitive Machines

Planting flags

This year should see a big increase in the number of countries metaphorically (or perhaps literally) planting their flags on the Moon:

The Indian Space Research Organisation will make a second attempt at a landing with Chandrayaan-3 after the first descended to the surface rather faster than intended in 2019.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute, with help from NASA and SpaceX, should get the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter in place this year to support a lander and rover arriving in 2025. By then the Korean’s own KSLV-2 rocket will be available.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is sending the Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon (SLIM). The interesting part of this project is not what it does after landing, but how accurately it lands in the first place. That’s because it will be testing a navigation system based on face-recognition technology adapted to identify craters, and hence should achieve a high-precision touchdown.

Not wanting to miss-out, the Russians (Roscosmos) are sending Luna 25 to study the lunar regolith. Its predecessor Luna 24 went to the Moon in 1976 and successfully returned a sample of the surface material to Earth.

What about the UK?

UK interest is confined to the two Spacebit robots already mentioned, and current circumstances may yet scupper them both. The point is, Spacebit is actually a UK – Ukraine joint venture and, well, I needn’t say more.

The Russo-Ukrainian war has also done for the Rosalind Franklin rover due to go to Mars this year. ESA are investigating options, but if the Roscosmos lander is unavailable, I can see the largely UK-built rover remaining mothballed for a very long time – the next launch window will not open until 2024 for a start.

Finally

As I write this, the Artemis I rocket has just suffered another setback: fuel leaks have occurred while a ‘wet-test’ was being conducted on the launch pad, making a May, or even June launch unlikely.

If you're stuck for something to do, follow my posts on Twitter. I link to interesting articles on new electronics and related technologies, retweeting posts I spot about robots, space exploration and other issues. To see my back catalogue of recent DesignSpark blog posts type “billsblog” into the Search box above.

Engineer, PhD, lecturer, freelance technical writer, blogger & tweeter interested in robots, AI, planetary explorers and all things electronic. STEM ambassador. Designed, built and programmed my first microcomputer in 1976. Still learning, still building, still coding today.
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