NASA has determined the landing site for its new lunar explorer to search for ice below the moon’s surface. A robotic lander, called the Nova-C lander, will be sent to the moon’s south pole in an area near the Shackleton crater. The lunar explorer is being sent to the moon ahead of the Artemis Program, NASA’s scheduled manned mission to the moon, to search for a source of water that could sustain the astronauts.
Deciding a location for the lunar explorer to land was a great challenge according to Dr. Jackie Quinn, PRIME-1’s project manager at NASA/s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She stated that they needed to find the ‘goldilocks’ site on the moon, the spot that gets just enough sunlight to meet mission requirements while also being a safe place to land with good Earth communications.
The mission is solar-powered and requires enough sunlight to operate. But if it is placed in a location where there is too much sunlight, there is the risk of the moon’s surface being too hot and all potential ice underneath it melts.
A clear line to Earth is important for real-time communication with PRIME-1. The proximity to Earth will allow for almost immediate communications with the drill, with only a 2.4-2.7 second information delay. As opposed to the 15–20-minute delay to collect information from the rover on Mars.
The PRIME-1 crew determined this ‘goldilocks’ site by utilizing remote sensing data of the moon to create ice-mining maps to find the location that was just right for the mission.
NASA developed the Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) experiment to properly search for ice on the moon. PRIME-1 is comprised of a drill and a mass spectrometer, designed to drill below the moon’s surface. The drill will collect and assess regolith and samples of lunar soil for water and other compounds.
The drill on PRIME-1, nicknamed TRIDENT (The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain), can drill up to three feet below the surface. This is a vast improvement from the drills on previous and current Mars missions that could only dig up to 10 centimeters below the planet’s surface.
The Nova-C lander will be built by the company Intuitive Machines that will carry three new technologies to the moon in preparation for a future manned mission. In addition to the drill, Nova-C will also carry a 4G/LTE communications network test from Nokia and a small explorer robot from Intuitive Machines.
This Mission, designated IM-1, is expected to launch in early 2022, two years ahead of the Artemis Program’s 2024 launch.
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