Facilities to guide landing of aircraft with airstrips, traffic control, and guided lines are sadly limited to planet Earth. When sending a very expensive, a very dangerous mission to the moon, you don’t exactly have guidelines painted on the ground to lead to a perfect landing spot. NASA is currently facing the same challenge with its upcoming and most ambitious mission yet, The Artemis expedition to our good old neighbour. The Artemis mission will send the first woman on the moon along with establishing the first ever habitat on the lunar surface.
The mission is slated for 2024. Though it may seem like a long time, in space travel-arrangement terms it’s really, really soon. NASA has shortlisted southern polar region of the moon as an ideal vicinity for the astronauts to be, but where can they exactly land? There are a lot of criteria to consider while finding a suitable landing spot. As it is, there will be dramatic changes in the temperature, gravity, light, and so on. But the area has been chosen because it has frozen water. One of the key missions of the Artemis project is to retrieve water and ice from the lunar surface.
The teams at NASA have been analysing the moon’s topography diligently to find a probable spot. The landing should be in an area with good sunlight as their primary power supply on the moon will be solar. The area should not have drastic temperature swings so that the equipment from Earth can cope well.
But how do you find an area that has sunlight but is dark enough and has frozen pits of water? The solution is an impact crater. The team thinks one of the crater’s outer edge can be ideal for landing. The dark interior cave of the crater will likely hold frozen water while the outer rims may receive ample sunlight. W. Brent Garry at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has created a virtual reality tour of an imaginary mission at the lunar south pole in order to acclimatize mission planners and astronauts to the environment. In his model, both the criteria required (sunlight and dark craters) can be found in the area.
They also want the spot to be as flat as possible so that the lander doesn’t fall over. But the landing spot should also be a certain distance from the main activity area as the high-powered rockets land, the thrusters will dismantle the surface and release the surrounding dust and rocks, water, and gases. The surface material would be potentially redistributed for miles. This will contaminate the landing area. So the experiment, solar panels, habitat (yes, like the film The Martian) needs to be at least half a mile away.
One way to do this is to take advantage of topography and land near hills who can act as a barrier for contamination. The team is therefore studying slopes and hills as well as craters. And the most important thing, the landing spot should ace Earth. The reason is simple, you want clear, uninterrupted communication between your astronauts and ground controllers.