Graduate Center Astronomers Assess NASA’s Artemis Moon Missions

December 12, 2022

The program is seen as a giant step for humanity, landing the first woman and first person of color on the moon.

NASA Artemis Moon Mission
NASA’s BioSentinel, a small satellite launched in November with Artemis I, will study the impacts of space radiation on yeast in deep space. Graduate Center astrophysicists explain how the Artemis missions set the stage for the next era of human space travel. (Credit: NASA)

NASA has headed back to the moon. And this time it’s going to be different.

The Artemis missions will explore the lunar surface, search for frozen water in its darkened regions and set up a long-term, human presence at the moon, Earth’s one and only natural satellite. While there, scientists will carry out research, analyze the moon’s chemical structure, and build a mission base camp. The space program will make history by landing the first woman and first person of color on the moon.

The Artemis program will serve as a stepping-stone for future missions to Mars, and Graduate Center astrophysicists say it’s poised to propel us into a new era of space exploration.

“We are now, as humans, at the next step of our understanding of the need and the value of exploring our solar system,” said Professor Charles Liu (GC/College of Staten Island, Physics, Astrophysics). “And that next step is going back out there with human beings. But this time, not because we had to get there before someone else got there, but to actually expand humanity's presence in the solar system.”

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The Search for Water

Artemis I, the first of the missions, launched last month from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Shortly after its departure, the uncrewed Orion spacecraft began to transmit stunning images of planet Earth. It splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, marking the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo lunar mission.

Scheduled for launch in 2024, Artemis 2 will be the program’s first crewed mission. Artemis 3 is expected to land astronauts on the moon, where they’ll search for frozen water in darkened areas of the south pole.

The job of finding water is a high priority — perhaps the highest, said Liu — as it could potentially provide potable water for drinking, air for breathing, and hydrogen and oxygen to convert into rocket fuel.

“Water is a core human need,” said Professor K.E. Saavik Ford, (GC/Borough of Manhattan Community College, Physics, Astrophysics). “Obviously, the moon also has no oxygen, so that's your top priority. But oxygen doesn't weigh very much. You could conceivably bring quite a bit of it with you. But water? If you've ever had to carry it, you know it weighs a lot. It’s very expensive to bring with you.”

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If water is found, she said, it can be harvested. “So, one of the questions is, how much water ice is there, really? And what would we have to do to make it drinkable?” Ford said.

Given a little electricity, that water can also be turned into fuel, she said. “You can run an electric current through water and separate it into its component parts — hydrogen and oxygen. And, if you pull them apart and set them on fire, that's rocket fuel.”

NASA Artemis Moon Mission
NASA’s Space Launch System is the most powerful rocket in the world. The rocket carried the Orion spacecraft, launched as part of Artemis I on November 16 at the Kennedy Space Center (Credit: NASA)

Origins of the Moon

Other tasks planned for future missions include construction of the Artemis Base Camp, a lunar base site where astronauts can live, work, and conduct experiments to learn more about the chemical makeup of the moon.

This research may tell us more about the moon’s origins, a subject of keen interest to Ford, whose students will design a mini spacecraft, called a LunaSat, to explore the lunar surface. “We have this very large moon. It’s a huge fraction of the mass of the Earth, and that's extremely unusual for the rocky planets of the inner solar system,” she said.

“For a long time, people wondered why this was. Our leading theory on the topic is that the moon formed because, in the very early days of the solar system, there was an impact where there was another body, perhaps the size of Mars, that struck the Earth at a glancing angle.”

The impact turned the Earth into molten rock, she said. Eventually, both bodies cooled and solidified, and the smaller of the two became the moon.

Lunar rocks collected from the Apollo missions support this theory. In fact, scientists found that oxygen-isotope ratios in rocks of the Earth and moon are identical, meaning they're somehow from the same reservoir, Ford said.

“But the details of how that impact happened — what was the original body, are there traces of it, can we learn more about that collision, about the conditions in our very early solar system from the chemistry of rocks on the moon? — that's probably the most important science that's going on, in my opinion,” Ford said.

NASA Artemis Moon Mission
NASA’s uncrewed Orion spacecraft captured imagery of the Earth and moon together, including this image on November 28. (Credit: NASA)

Astronauts to Make History

Ford recalls when Sally Ride, whom she described as a huge inspiration, became the first American woman to go into space. “Her face was on the covers of magazines and I remember being in the supermarket checkout line with my mom and saying, ‘Who's that?’” she said.

The first landing of a woman and person of color on the moon is likely to inspire a new generation of young people, said Professor Jillian Bellovary (GC/Queensborough Astrophysics, Physics), acting director of the Graduate Center’s Astrophysics Master’s Program.

“Representation is so important,” said Bellovary. “And when people see someone who looks like them doing something awesome, they realize they can do it, too. Moments like this open up dreams to millions of people, and those people are our future.”

Diversity in space is a natural step forward for humanity, said Professor Liu, author of The Cosmos Explained: The History of the Universe From its Beginning to Today and Beyond. “When it comes to space exploration, diversity is a necessary and vital reflection of the future of humanity — of all of us — as we move beyond the confines of Earth,” he said.

Next Stop, Mars

The ultimate goal of the Artemis program is to pave the way for future missions to Mars — a far more hostile environment than the moon, with an atmosphere largely made of carbon dioxide and bitterly cold temperatures of about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Before then, an international team will construct the Gateway space station, the first space station to orbit the moon. The Gateway is expected to remain in orbit for more than a decade, equipped with living facilities and docking ports for spacecraft, supporting long-term science and deep-space exploration.

Our ability to travel beyond the Earth’s orbit and beyond our immediate surroundings in space is a matter of our own survival, said Liu.

“We humans now understand that our world is a beautiful and wonderful place, but it's only one place,” he said. “Putting all of our eggs in a single basket, as Stephen Hawking used to say, seems to be an inherently risky thing to do. Humanity’s survival and thriving over time inevitably will include finding other places to go, other places to live, learning about things beyond our cosmic doorstep.”

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