All is not what it seems in the world of lunar samples. If you put a moon rock alongside one from Earth, they usually don't have a lot in common. So when Curtin University planetary scientist Professor Alexander Nemchin looked closely at a moon rock in his laboratory, he realized something wasn't right.
The moon just got a little more crowded. A horde of microscopic critters called tardigrades were passengers aboard the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet, which crashed into the lunar surface nearly four months ago. But because tardigrates can survive in extreme environments, it's likely these tiny astronauts are still alive.
Of the 12 people who have walked on the moon, zero have been women. NASA's Artemis program aims to change that by landing the first woman on the moon. "I have a daughter. She is 11 years old, and I want her to see herself in the same position that our current, very diverse astronaut corps currently sees itself, having the opportunity to go to the moon," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an agency town hall May 14.
Private companies are helping NASA get back to the moon -- but they may be the agency's biggest competition. With private companies setting their sights on sending humans to the moon in the near future, it's possible that one could touch down on the lunar surface before NASA astronauts do.
"Similar to the 1960s, we too have an opportunity to take a giant leap forward for all of humanity," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. "President Trump and Vice President Pence have given us a bold direction to return to the Moon by 2024 and then go forward to Mars. Their direction is not empty rhetoric. They have backed up their vision with the budget requests needed to accomplish this objective. NASA is calling this the Artemis program in honor of Apollo's twin sister in Greek mythology, the goddess of the Moon. And we are well on our way to getting this done."
The timeline is set, and aggressively: Land humans on the moon again by 2024, just five years from Vice President Mike Pence's announcement earlier this year. Those humans have a general destination as well: the moon's south pole, a region no human has explored before. And the grand goal is well-touted: Draw on commercial and international partnerships to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon, one that lasts for more than a handful of years as Apollo did.
NASA hopes to launch the first unpiloted test flight of an SLS rocket and an Orion capsule in 2021, years later than originally planned. While Pence said the Trump administration remains committed to the huge rocket’s development, he warned the government will turn to other providers if NASA’s “traditional” contractors cannot deliver.
The connection of the Orion spacecraft’s two main elements is a major milestone as engineers ready the vehicle for an unpiloted test flight to lunar orbit and back to Earth, a precursor to a follow-on mission that will carry astronauts back to the vicinity of the moon for the first time since 1972.
An epic lunar laser experiment is still going strong, five decades after the Apollo astronauts set it up on the surface. The moonwalking crew of Apollo 11, which landed on the moon 50 years ago this month, put special retroreflectors on the lunar surface, as did the later crews of Apollo 14 and 15, in 1971.
A half-century after landing the first humans on the Moon, NASA is looking to put people back on the lunar surface, but this time the agency has an even more ambitious deadline to meet. The goal is to send humans back to the Moon by 2024, a mere five years from now. NASA has a whole lot more hardware to develop this time -- which leaves many wondering if such an extremely ambitious lunar return can be done.