What past missions have helped us prepare for Artemis?

After four unsuccessful missions by the USA and three by the Soviet Union or USSR, USSR’s Luna 1 became the first mission to survive a lunar flyby (although it was intended as an impactor). The USSR’s Luna 2 was the first successful mission to land on the Moon in 1959. Like Luna 1, Luna 2 was designed to study the Moon’s radiation environment and magnetic field to see if the lunar surface was safe for humans. There were 48 more missions to the Moon before astronauts Frank Boremon, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders orbited the Moon in 1968. Twenty-eight of these 48 uncrewed missions would be partial or total failures as NASA and the USSR learned how to build rockets, design instruments, and calculate orbital trajectories. 

The successful lunar missions collected information that was critical for the Apollo missions. They sent back detailed images of the Moon’s surface, including the farside, which had never been seen before. Successful landers like NASA’s Surveyor 1, 3, and 5 would help scientists and engineers understand the properties of the lunar regolith that Apollo astronauts would land, walk, and drive on. Astronauts from the Apollo 12 mission landed close enough to reunite with Surveyor 2.

Robotic missions to investigate the Moon have continued since the last Apollo mission in 1972, but they have not been nearly as frequent. There were no lunar missions in the 1980s. Spacecraft began to return in the ’90s and, in the last 20 years, missions have been launched by the USA, China, India, the European Space Agency, and Japan. These missions have been diverse, including orbiters, impactors, landers, rovers, and even the first robotic sample return mission from China called Chang’e-5. 

Previous NASA missions that have discovered evidence of water ice on the moon. (Credit: NASA)

Many recent missions are helping humans prepare to return to the Moon by making high-resolution maps or looking for water or other important minerals. A few missions that provided information that is critical to the success of the Artemis missions are described below:

Lunar Prospector Mission (NASA, 1998):  This spacecraft found that hydrogen was most abundant on the Moon near permanently shadowed regions where water ice might exist. The images it took using its spectrometer camera did not have the resolution to be conclusive, but it provided some of the first evidence that water may currently exist on the poles of the Moon.

Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite LCROSS (NASA, 2009):  The LCROSS mission was designed to send a portion of the spacecraft known as Centar to impact the inside of a dark crater of the Moon so that the material kicked up could be studied. LCROSS itself also impacted the Moon about 10 hours later. 

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or LRO (NASA, 2009): LRO was orbiting the Moon simultaneously and observed grains of water ice being ejected from the LCROSS impact site. A direct confirmation of water ice on the Moon! LRO has continued to use its instruments to study and look for regions of water ice on the Moon, in addition to taking high-resolution pictures to produce a detailed map of the surface of the Moon.

Chandrayaan-1 (Indian Space Research Organization, 2009): During its mission, data from Chandrayaan-1 showed possible evidence of water in materials in sunlight regions of the Moon, but it was still not conclusively identified as water. Scientists took another look at the data in 2018 and determined that the mission Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) did, in fact, detect water and Chandrayaan-1 provided the highest resolution map of where water exists globally on the Moon.

Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA): You don’t have to launch a mission all the way to the Moon to find water on its surface. In 2020, instruments on a Boeing 747 known as SOFIA or NASA’s “flying observatory” confirmed that small amounts of water existed throughout the lunar soil, even in sunlit regions near the equator. 


Explore the timeline of lunar exploration: History | Exploration – Moon: NASA Science

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