Claims of a “Return to the Moon” have been around for a while, and for some people, they won’t be justified until a human foot hits the lunar surface again. However, for those more concerned about scientific discovery, the accumulated knowledge from multiple missions may be more significant. All going well, 2024 could be a standout year on that score, far surpassing any other, at least since the end of the Apollo missions.
The rush is the result of two main drivers: the fall in the cost of space launches in the last decade or so, and the discovery of evidence for ice near the lunar poles. The cost of bringing water was considered one of the major impediments to lunar exploration. If it can be dug out of the ground and melted prospects look very different.
Humans in space
The most high-profile mission will not be to the lunar surface at all. Artemis II is scheduled to take four astronauts, who have already been selected, around the Moon and back again in November. Unless someone has been keeping their plans very secret, this will be the first time humans have gone beyond low Earth orbit since 1972. Having waited 52 years, however, there is a high chance we will have to wait one more, with speculation about delays until 2025.
Nevertheless, Artemis II is now sufficiently advanced that it will almost certainly happen in the next two years, and if it does, it will be much more than retracing the steps of Apollo. For one thing, the crew will spend 10 to 21 days in space, instead of the eight days for Apollo 10 and 11, and will develop capacity suited to a long-term presence on the Moon, not just a quick stay.
Commercial Lunar Payload Services
In preparation for the following stage of the Artemis project, three private companies have been commissioned to deliver six payloads, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, between them for NASA this year. Then again, the timeline still up on the NASA website lists two of them as having made deliveries in 2023, neither of which happened, so perhaps take this with a grain of salt.
The first such mission, Peregrine Mission One, is planned to launch on January 8, so we should know soon if it will keep to schedule. The mission will carry a 90-kilogram (198-pound) payload and be the first project launched by the Vulcan Centaur vehicle developed by United Launch Alliance. That, however, undersells just how much the mission will be carrying, with both US and Mexican rovers on board, along with eight other instruments and 13 time capsules.
Subsequent missions scheduled to launch this year include three to the lunar South Pole region, considered the likely location for future bases, one to a neighbor of the Sea of Tranquility site, and one to the Reiner Gamma swirl.
Not just America
Most lunar exploration this century has been done by China, and Chang’e 6, expected to launch in May 2024, is intended to keep that trend going. As a sample-return mission from the vital South Pole region, Chang’e 6 could give China something other nations are years off achieving – an opportunity to study rocks from the Moon’s most important region.
Probably the best prospect for success lies with the Japanese Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission. The lander, hopper, and rover have experienced many delays, but are now in orbit around the Moon having completed the majority of their journey. Landing will be attempted near Shioli Crater on January 19. Then again, SLIM has higher ambitions than most other missions, intending to hit a 100-meter (328 feet) target, rather than allowing itself many kilometers like most landers, so success may only be partial.
Japan also has a second entrant in the form of the private ispace lander. Having met an unfortunate end on the first attempt last year, ispace is back in the saddle and showing off its next effort, which aims to deliver a tiny rover.
On top of these missions with the Moon as their goal, Earth's companion will be a way station for the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, which will fly by the Moon in August. So that brings us ten and a half missions if you like, though not all of these may succeed.
On the other hand, there could be some surprise entries, as occurred with the Russian Luna 25 mission that came out of stealth mode hoping to beat India to the lunar south pole. Then again, given the disastrous way that mission ended, space agencies may be less inclined to try to jump the gun without suitable planning.
For those who, despite overwhelming evidence, insist on denying the reality of the original Moon landings, this may all pose a dilemma. Do they decide these missions were faked too, with so many governments and organizations in on the act? Or do they conclude that the current rush of exploration is real, with all involved somehow joining in the historical cover-up? Either way, they’d better get their stories ready; they’re running out of time.