Moon Monday #111: An Indo-Japanese rover, China’s 4th lunar leap, Artemis collaborations, and more
Dear readers, I have 3 exciting things to share with you today:
Moon Monday crossed 4,000 subscribers last week, with the majority gratifyingly continuing to be planetary scientists and engineers, personnel at national space agencies, executives at space companies, and fellow writers & journalists from around the world! If your company or organization wants to sponsor Moon Monday, get in touch. 🚀
I’m launching an Indian space newsletter next month! Published monthly on this space blog of mine, it will be the world’s only newsletter dedicated to covering the entire (civil) Indian space landscape. I’m looking for launch sponsors for the first edition, which will go out on February 2. Get in touch this week to benefit from lower pre-launch pricing and get visibility among my established global audience. 🇮🇳
I hope you enjoy the highlight coverage in today’s Moon Monday below of an exciting Moon mission that’s ripening with international collaboration. 🌗
JAXA and ISRO pressing ahead with joint rover mission to study water on the Moon’s south pole
The 5th “Lunar Polar Area Exploration Workshop” held by JAXA on January 17 provided an update on the joint Japanese-Indian LUPEX mission. Launching no earlier than 2025 on a Japanese H3 rocket, the mission comprises an ISRO-developed ~6000-kilogram lander which will deliver a JAXA-built ~350-kilogram rover to the Moon’s south pole (between 89–90°S) to study water ice.
The drill-capable LUPEX rover will explore the Moon’s south pole for at least 6 months, including venturing inside 100-meter scale permanently shadowed areas, so as to help scientists determine the exact nature and accessibility of lunar water ice and other such volatile resources. This makes LUPEX fundamentally similar to NASA’s VIPER rover, which is targeting a late 2024 launch. While LUPEX is yet to be formally approved by the Indian government, JAXA and ISRO have finalized the rover instruments, and preliminary design reviews for the mission are underway. The rover will feature not only Indo-Japanese instruments but one contribution each from NASA and ESA as well.
A defining capability of the LUPEX rover—and one distinguishing it from VIPER—will be the ISRO-provided ground penetrating radar, which will inform scientists of the Moon’s polar underground structure up to 3 meters below the rover with high resolution and map water ice within it. And, like VIPER, a NASA-led neutron spectrometer will be onboard LUPEX to detect hydrogen—an indirect sign of water—up to a meter below the surface. Together, the two instruments will help mission scientists identify the most favorable drill locations for water/volatile-abundant samples, which will be analyzed by at least 5 complementary spectrometers in total from JAXA and ISRO—compared to two on VIPER.
Since volatiles evaporate even at moderately warm temperatures, some of them would escape the soil and samples before LUPEX’s spectrometer suite can detect them. To that end, ESA is contributing a mass spectrometer onboard the rover to identify escaped volatiles that pass through it. It will also study the Moon’s exosphere. Lastly, JAXA is assessing the feasibility of attaching an ISRO-provided thermal probe to the rover for it to help quantify local water ice within lunar polar soil.
There are some interesting implications connected to the LUPEX mission:
It’s critical for ISRO to stick the lunar landing with its Chandrayaan 3 spacecraft launching later this year. Two back-to-back touchdown failures with Chandrayaan 2 and 3 respectively would reduce JAXA’s confidence in the ISRO-provided lander for LUPEX, especially when the Japanese space agency itself is launching the SLIM demonstrator lander this year as well as a LUPEX-class lander end of decade primarily intended to deliver cargo for NASA’s crewed Artemis missions.
The success of NASA’s VIPER rover is critical to the agency’s planning of Artemis III, the first crewed surface mission under the Artemis campaign. And yet there’s greater risk involved than its other such decisive missions since VIPER is being delivered to the Moon non-traditionally using a 5900-kilogram lander being built by a commercial company, Astrobotic, selected competitively as part of the agency’s CLPS program. Despite NASA’s confidence in Astrobotic, the inherently difficult mission ultimately made the agency take a more conservative approach with VIPER by asking the company to perform more (paid for) tests and delay the launch by a year to late 2024. If VIPER still fails, LUPEX stands to provide NASA a second chance to obtain the desired crucial data about the Moon’s polar water without pursuing another time-consuming mission. That’s especially so because Japan is not only a key partner of NASA in the Artemis campaign but the country has also signed the Artemis Accords. Both mechanisms encourage scientific data sharing. Of course, the best case scenario is for both VIPER and LUPEX to be successful so we get anchored results as well as complementary datasets.
LUPEX mission planners and scientists are using the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter instruments to analyze and downselect from over a dozen candidate landing sites. This is interesting because it demonstrates part of the next layer of self-sufficiency in India’s budding planetary science endeavors. With Chandrayaan 1 and 2, and Mangalyaan, India demonstrated being able to completely indigenously build and launch planetary spacecraft. With LUPEX, India approaches the ability to independently plan lunar missions from scratch too. Aside: Slides attached below on LUPEX’s Indian instruments and mission planning glimpses, as shared by @Astro_Neel.
Many thanks to Epsilon3 for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday.
Thanks also to Stéphane Leclair for supporting my independent writing.
3 Moon launches in the next 3 years for China
Kickstarting the 4th phase of China’s lunar exploration project, CNSA will launch the Queqiao 2 lunar satellite next year, Andrew Jones reports. Queqiao 2 will relay communications between Earth and China’s Chang’e 6 and Chang’e 7 Moon landers launching in 2025 and 2026 respectively.
Chang’e 6 aims to bring about two kilograms of lunar samples to Earth, with a similar mechanism and mission profile to Chang’e 5 but with an improved sampler. While the mission’s landing site hasn’t yet been finalized, or announced, it will be somewhere within the largest and deepest lunar crater, the farside South Pole-Aitken basin. Since this ancient crater holds clues to what was happening in our Solar System about 4 billion years ago, a sample return mission from here has been assessed as a top priority in the latest Planetary Decadal Survey—a report produced every 10 years by the U.S. scientific community to guide future NASA missions. The Chang’e 6 lander will also carry 3 European scientific instruments whereas the orbiter will carry a Pakistani CubeSat called “ICUBE-Q”—making it the country’s first Moon mission.
Chang’e 7 will consist of an orbiter and a lander, the latter of which will deploy a rover and a mini-flying probe to map resources in one of the few key identified regions on the Moon’s south pole—particularly inside the region’s permanently shadowed areas in much the same vein as the VIPER and LUPEX missions. The Chang’e 7 lander will also carry UAE’s second lunar rover, which will sport high-resolution CASPEX cameras from the French space agency. CNSA will finalize more international payloads to be onboard Chang’e 7 later this year.
The Chang’e 7 orbiter and some of the upcoming Russian Luna missions will help select a suitable site for the joint Sino-Russian long-term scientific base on the Moon’s south pole, called the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).
NASA has handed over to the German space agency the latter’s two dummies that flew inside the Orion spacecraft on the agency’s Artemis I mission around the Moon and back. As part of the MARE experiment, a total of more than 10,000 passive crystal sensors and 34 active radiation detectors embedded inside these anatomically accurate female torso analogues measured deep space radiation over the entire mission length of 26 days. Researchers will now analyze these measurements to develop adequate protective measures for future female crews on Moon missions as well as to better protect astronauts at large starting with the crewed Artemis II mission for which NASA is targeting a late 2024 launch.
NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), in a relatively benign report released on January 17, recommended the agency to leverage the strong international interest in Artemis to reduce the overall cost of the crewed lunar campaign. International partners currently bear only 6% of the cost of missions Artemis I–III, which the OIG says is because NASA lacks an overarching (partnerships) strategy and a structured intergovernmental agreement for Artemis like it does for the International Space Station. Curiously, an intergovernmental agreement exists for the NASA-led Gateway international lunar orbital station but not the surface Artemis missions. This, coupled with limitations due to U.S. export control regulations as highlighted by Jeff Foust, is inhibiting international contributions from both existing and potential partners.
NASA researchers are using detailed slope and topographic data from the LOLA altimeter on the agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to allow future lunar astronauts to know their location down to less than 9 meters with just a handheld device. This system, which correlates known topographic and geologic features to snapped images, will build on NASA Goddard’s GIANT optical navigation tool previously used to verify navigation data for the agency’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample collection mission. Relatedly, ESA is making the Electronic Field Book for future Artemis astronauts, with the aim of getting it ready for use before end of decade.
The U.S. Green Bank Observatory, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, led a project to produce the sharpest Earth-based image of the Tycho crater and its floor. Using the Moon as a calibration ground, the team plans to develop an even more sensitive planetary radar system which will image not just other Solar System objects, all the way up to Neptune, but more importantly be used for early detection and imaging of potentially threatening asteroids passing by Earth.