The United States has returned to the moon! What does it mean?

American hardware is on the surface of our closest celestial neighbor for the first time in 50 years.
SpaceX Launches the Nova-C Moon Lander from Cape Canaveral, Florida
SpaceX Launches the Nova-C Moon Lander from Cape Canaveral, Florida / Anadolu/GettyImages

During the Space Race it would've been impossible to miss a moon landing. But yesterday, when the Nova -C Odysseus spacecraft landed on the moon, the news was surprisingly low-key. The Odysseus unmanned mission is part of preparations for a manned mission to the moon in 2025. Next year's mission (Artemis II) will be a flyby, but Artemis III (scheduled for 2026) will be a manned moon landing.

China, India and Japan have all successfully landed unmanned craft on the moon in the last five years, making them relatively common. However, while more such missions fail than succeed, an American mission failed in early January 2024. Landing a craft on the moon is always an amazing achievement.

Even so, why should we care about this moon landing? It's the fact that this is the first step to returning astronauts to the moon that makes this mission significant.

This is the first controlled landing of an American craft on the moon since Apollo 27 in 1972. And it's also the first landing by a craft produced by a commercial company. In fact, the involvement of commercial companies in this mission is unusually high. The craft was launched by SpaceX, and the lander was built by Texas-based company, Intuitive Machines.

The craft also carries an art project by Jeff Koons. Koons is known for setting the record for the most expensive piece of art by a living artist in 2019. That piece was an inflatable bunny rabbit made from stainless steel. But the art piece currently on the moon is a box containing 62 tiny models of the moon, each one showing one of the phases of the moon and stamped with the name of a historical figure, including David Bowie, Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol, Josephine Baker, and Maya Angelou.

Odysseus was equipped with six instruments developed by NASA. These include:

  • A laser retroreflector array to bounce back laser beams.
  • A LIDAR instrument to precisely measure the spacecraft’s altitude and velocity as it descends to the lunar surface.
  • A stereo camera to capture video of the plume of dust kicked up by the lander’s engines during landing.
  • A low-frequency radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles near the lunar surface on radio signals.
  • A beacon, Lunar Node-1, to demonstrate an autonomous navigation system.
  • An instrument in the propellant tank that uses radio waves to measure how much fuel remains in the tank.

This equipment will contribute to the mission's objective of assessing the lunar environment of the moon's south pole, as that is the prospective landing site for Artemis III. So this is not merely a precursor to the manned mission, but an essential part of the preparation.

That's what makes this mission so exciting. There have been vague ambitions to return to the moon for as long as I can remember. But this is a real indication that those manned missions to the moon are actually happening. The first moon landing in 1969 was the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century, and going back will ensure the ongoing legacy of that achievement.

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