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NASA is transferring control as preparations for the next phase of moon missions are underway.

To an untrained eye, the activities taking place at Cape Canaveral in Florida may seem like a standard launch of a spacecraft to a new location within the solar system.

However, the upcoming mission, set to launch on Christmas Eve, is a significant milestone in the field of space exploration. Instead of leading the operations, Nasa has delegated control to a private company, Astrobotic, which has been commissioned to create the spacecraft and manage its launch and landing.

Assuming there are no unexpected issues, Peregrine Mission 1, named after the quickest creature on the planet, will launch at 6:50am UK time for a multi-week journey to the moon. This will mark the inaugural launch of the new Vulcan rocket, sending the first American lander to the moon in over 50 years.

The objective is to launch the initial private spacecraft in a series headed towards the moon within the upcoming years. Through Nasa’s commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) program, the agency is providing funds to companies to construct spacecraft and transport supplies, as well as payloads from other organizations, to multiple locations on the surface of the moon.

The setup is a method of transporting equipment to the moon in preparation for astronauts’ return in the next ten years. Keeping this in mind, the Peregrine mission will transport five Nasa payloads to collect data on radiation, surface and subsurface water, and the exosphere, a thin layer of gas on the moon.

Peregrine’s collection of 15 payloads includes a lunar dream capsule from Japan, containing messages from over 80,000 children. It also holds one bitcoin from the Seychelles and cremated human remains as a lunar memorial provided by Elysium Space.

However, this recent wave of lunar missions has caused concern among scientists. Upcoming landers plan to excavate for various resources, including ice and potentially valuable elements such as iron and rare earths that are sought after by mining companies.

The Peregrine Mission 1 spacecraft at Astrobotic.

The issue is centered around conflicting interests. While scientists generally support the idea of a lunar armada, they also have their own objectives for utilizing the moon’s surface. They are interested in placing radio telescopes on the far side of the moon to avoid interference from Earth’s electromagnetic activity. They also desire infrared telescopes in lunar craters that are shielded from the sun’s heat. Additionally, there are aspirations to construct gravitational wave detectors on the moon’s surface.

Richard Green, an astronomer from the University of Arizona, stated that there are multiple legitimate activities happening on the moon that cannot coexist. He explained that mining and scientific research cannot occur in the same location, as mining would disturb the site. Additionally, landing and taking off also creates a lot of debris that can disrupt other activities.

In addition to building observatories on the moon, researchers aim to analyze the undisturbed lunar ice and other substances. This could lead to discoveries about the origins of volatile and organic compounds on Earth, as well as how space radiation impacts reactions that are important for sustaining life.

The issue at hand is the lack of coordination in making plans. With increasing numbers of landers and investments from different companies, it will become increasingly difficult to establish a fair and reliable process that allows all countries and industries to pursue their goals without causing disruptions for others.

In late November, Green led the initial meeting of the International Astronomical Union’s committee on lunar astronomy. He is reaching out to various groups worldwide to pinpoint specific sites on the moon that hold potential for future telescopes or gravitational wave sensors.

A rendering of the Peregrine spacecraft on the lunar surface

Although scientists may be able to come to a consensus on designated lunar areas for preservation, there is currently no international organization with the authority to review requests and allocate protection. According to Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science at Birkbeck, University of London, without regulations in place, there is nothing to prevent a company from landing in the same crater as a detector or disturbing the area through excavation and causing disturbances. This is the missing element in regulating lunar activities.

A proposal has been suggested to mark certain craters on the southern portion of the moon as areas of significant scientific importance, in order to conserve them for future research. Crawford supports this idea and proposes that the entire northern pole of the moon be closed off to all activities until the effects of pollution from operations in the south are better understood.

According to Crawford, there are multiple groups that should be involved in making decisions regarding activities on the moon. These include the Committee on Space Research (Cospar), which has established planetary protection policies, and the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (Isecg). Additionally, Nasa’s Artemis Accords, which outline principles for civil exploration and use of outer space, may need to be revised in order to address potential conflicts on the moon. However, it is unlikely that China and Russia will agree to sign them.

Green stated that time is limited and compared the current state of space exploration to a race. He mentioned that currently, countries are still developing their capabilities, but once there are prototypes on the moon and humans have returned, progress will accelerate quickly due to significant commercial interests.

Source: theguardian.com