WASHINGTON – NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine proposed on September 14 that NASA would be open to sending the first Artemis landing mission to a location other than the Moon’s South Pole.
In remarks at an online meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), Bridenstine said there could be benefits to sending a mission to the equatorial regions of the moon instead, including the proximity of an Apollo landing site.
“If you come to the equatorial realm again, how do you learn the most? You can argue that you learn the most by going to the places where we have previously set equipment, ”he said, referring to the equipment left at the Apollo landing sites.
“There could be scientific discoveries there, and of course, just inspiration to return to an original Apollo site would also be quite amazing,”
NASA has worked to bring humans back to the moon in the South Polar regions, where deposits of water ice believed to exist there are both of scientific interest and can provide resources to support human exploration.
A South Pole landing was the goal set by Vice President Mike Pence in his speech in March 2019 at a National Space Council meeting calling on NASA to move up a human landing from 2028 to 2024. “NASA already knows that the moon the South Pole holds great scientific, economic and strategic value, but now is the time to commit to going there, ”Pence said in that speech.
Bridenstine’s comments, however, suggested that the agency might consider these plans. A landing at the poles is more technically challenging, and no human or robot mission has yet successfully landed near either the North or South Poles on the moon. However, commercial robots performing missions to NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program are scheduled to land near the South Pole before Artemis 3 landing.
Bridenstine treated a landing away from the South Pole as for now a hypothetical scenario. “If we decided that the South Pole might be out of reach for Artemis 3, which I do not say it is or is not,” then a landing near an Apollo site could be an option, he said. “These decisions have not been made at this time.”
The possibility that the Artemis 3 mission may not land at the southern polar region on the moon aroused the curiosity of scientists attending the LEAG meeting, who asked NASA representatives in later sessions about the possibility of alternative landing sites.
This included a “town hall” session with NASA officials involved in a science definition team for Artemis 3 working to identify scientific priorities for the mission. A shift in the landing site would affect the science that could be done in the mission.
“So far, we have been asked to perform this activity in order to see a polar landing site,” said Renee Weber, chair of the science definition team at the Marshall Space Flight Center, when a participant asked about Bridenstine’s comments.
NASA has just begun identifying specific landing sites for Artemis missions. “We’re working through what that process looks like,” said Jake Bleacher, chief research officer at NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division. This process, he said, will involve “community engagement” with researchers.
While NASA ultimately envisages building an “Artemis Base Camp” or sustained presence somewhere, agency officials said during the meeting that no decision has yet been made on whether the other human landing mission, Artemis 4, would go to the same location. as Artemis 3. “We’re really going to have to see what capacities are from landers and what places we can actually get to,” Bleacher said. He added that there is also “no clarity” long after Artemis 3, the Artemis 4 mission would take place.