What past missions have helped us prepare for Artemis?

A long time ago, both the USA and the Soviet Union (also known as the USSR) tried to send missions to the Moon. They had some trouble initially, with several missions not working as planned. But then, the USSR’s Luna 1 mission became the first to “fly by” the Moon and survive, even though it was supposed to impact the lunar surface.

Later, the USSR’s Luna 2 was the first to land on the Moon in 1959. These early missions were all about checking if the Moon was safe for humans. They looked at things like the Moon’s radiation and magnetic fields.

Before astronauts went to the Moon, there were 48 more missions to learn how to build rockets and do the correct calculations. Some missions didn’t go well, but others succeeded and sent back pictures of the Moon, even the side we couldn’t see from Earth. This helped NASA determine where and how to land before the Apollo missions. The Apollo 12 astronauts even landed close enough to a spacecraft called Surveyor 2 to pose for a picture with it.

After Apollo, we didn’t go to the Moon for a while, but missions started again in the ’90s. Many countries, like the USA, China, India, Europe, and Japan, sent missions to the Moon. These missions did different things, like going around the Moon, impacting its surface, landing on it, driving rovers, and even bringing back samples from the Moon.

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

Previous – What future robotic missions will help us go to the Moon?

Back to the Introduction to Artemis