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Update May, 2020

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Science & Technology

NASA outlines lunar surface sustainability concept

Infographic showing the evolution of lunar activities on the surface and in orbit.

When NASA sends astronauts to the surface of the Moon in 2024, it will be the first time outside of watching historical footage most people witness humans walking on another planetary body. Building on these footsteps, future robotic and human explorers will put in place infrastructure for a long-term sustainable presence on the Moon.

NASA recently proposed a plan to go from limited, short-term Apollo-era exploration of the 1960s, to a 21st Century plan in a report to the National Space Council. With the Artemis program, we will explore more of the Moon than ever before to make the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.

“After 20 years of continuously living in low-Earth orbit, we’re now ready for the next great challenge of space exploration – the development of a sustained presence on and around the Moon,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “For years to come, Artemis will serve as our North Star as we continue to work toward even greater exploration of the Moon, where we will demonstrate key elements needed for the first human mission to Mars.”

On the surface, the core elements for a sustained presence would include an emphasis on mobility to allow astronauts to explore more of the Moon and conduct more science:

* A lunar terrain vehicle or LTV, would transport crew around the landing zone.

* The habitable mobility platform would enable crews to take trips across the Moon lasting up to 45 days.

* A lunar foundation surface habitat would house as many as four crew members on shorter surface stays.

Astronauts working on the lunar surface also could test advanced robotics, as well as a wide set of new technologies identified in the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, focusing on tech development in the areas such as of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and power systems. Rovers will carry a variety of instruments including ISRU experiments that will generate information on the availability and extraction of usable resources (e.g., oxygen and water). Advancing these technologies could enable the production of fuel, water, and/or oxygen from local materials, enabling sustainable surface operations with decreasing supply needs from Earth.

Another key difference from Apollo and Artemis will be use of the Gateway in lunar orbit, built with commercial and international partners. The lunar outpost will serve as a command and control module for surface expeditions and an office and home for astronauts away from Earth. Operating autonomously when crew is not present, it also will be a platform for new science and technology demonstrations around the Moon.

Over time, NASA and its partners will enhance the lunar Gateway’s habitation capabilities and related life support systems. Adding a large-volume deep space habitation element would allow astronauts to test capabilities around the Moon for long-duration deep space missions.

While the goal of Apollo was to land the first humans on the Moon, the Artemis program will use the Moon as a testbed for crewed exploration farther into the solar system, beginning with Mars. This is America’s Moon to Mars space exploration approach. A proposed multi-month split-crew operation at the Gateway and on the lunar surface would test the agency’s concept for a human mission to the Red Planet.

For such a mission, NASA envisions a four-person crew traveling to the Gateway and living aboard the outpost for a multi-month stay to simulate the outbound trip to Mars. Later, two crew members would travel to the lunar surface and explore with the habitable mobility platform, while the remaining two astronauts stay aboard Gateway. The four crew members are later reunited aboard the lunar outpost for another multi-month stay, simulating the return trip to Earth. This mission would be the longest duration human deep space mission in history and would be the first operational test of the readiness of our deep-space systems.

The report also highlights a robotic return to the surface beginning next year for scientific discovery. The Moon is a natural laboratory to study planetary processes and evolution, and a platform from which to observe the universe. NASA will send dozens of new science instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon with its Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. Some of these robotic precursors, including the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER, will study the terrain, and metal and ice resources at the lunar South Pole.

The Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, human landing systems and modern spacesuits will round out the agency’s deep space systems. As part of the Artemis III mission, the first human expedition back on the Moon will last approximately seven days. NASA plans to send Artemis Generation astronauts on increasingly longer missions about once per year thereafter.

With strong support in NASA, America and its partners will test new technologies and reduce exploration costs over time. Supporting infrastructure including power, radiation shielding, a landing pad, as well as waste disposal and storage could be built up in the coming decades, too.

“The U.S. is still the only nation to have successfully landed humans on the Moon and spacecraft on the surface of Mars,” the report states. “As other nations increasingly move out into space, American leadership is now called for to lead the next phase of humanity’s quest to open up the future to endless discovery and growth.” (NASA)

Read the full report:  NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development

ASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover gets its wheels and air brakes

Wheels are installed on NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover inside Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on March 30, 2020. Perseverance will liftoff aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in July 2020. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Illustrated here, the aluminum wheels of NASA’s Curiosity (left) and Perseverance rovers. Slightly larger in diameter and narrower, 20.7 inches (52.6 centimeters) versus 20 inches (50.8 centimeters), Perseverance’s wheels have twice as many treads, and are gently curved instead of chevron-patterned. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

DC Agle, JPL, Grey Hautaluoma, Alana Johnson, NASA

Final assembly and testing of NASA’s Perseverance rover continues at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the July launch window approaches. In some of the last steps required prior to stacking the spacecraft components in the configuration they’ll be in atop the Atlas V rocket, the rover’s wheels and parachute have been installed.

Perseverance received its six flight wheels on March 30, 2020. While the rover took a test drive last December, it was on “flight spares” that wouldn’t be making the trip to Mars. Designed for the kind of off-roading Perseverance will perform on the Red Planet, the wheels are re-engineered versions of the ones NASA’s Curiosity has been using on its traverses of Mount Sharp.

Machined out of a block of flight-grade aluminum and equipped with titanium spokes, each wheel is slightly larger in diameter and narrower than Curiosity’s, with skins that are almost a millimeter thicker. They also feature new treads, or grousers: In place of Curiosity’s 24 chevron-pattern treads are 48 gently curved ones. Extensive testing in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built the rover and manages operations, has shown these treads better withstand the pressure from sharp rocks and grip just as well or better than Curiosity’s when driving on sand.

The Parachute

The job of adding Perseverance’s parachute to the back shell, where the rover will be stowed on the journey to the Red Planet, took several days and was finished on March 26. Tasked with slowing the heaviest payload in the history of Mars exploration from Mach 1.7 to about 200 mph (320 kph) during the rover’s landing on Feb., 18, 2021, the 194 pounds (88 kilograms) of nylon, Technora and Kevlar fibers are packed so tightly into a 20-inch-wide (50-centimeter-wide) aluminum cylinder that it is as dense as oak wood. When deployed at about 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the Martian surface, the chute will take about a half-second to fully inflate its 70.5-foot-wide (21.5-meter-wide) canopy.

The Perseverance rover is a robotic scientist weighing 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms). It will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. No matter what day Perseverance launches during its July 17-Aug. 5 launch period, it will land on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

Perseverance is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.


For more information about the mission, go to:

For more about NASA’s Moon to Mars plans, visit:

On Earth Day 50, NASA researchers look to the future

Ellen Gray NASA’s Earth Science News Team

In 1970, the United States Clean Air Act underwent major revisions to reduce pollution and protect air quality, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA scientists were cracking open the door on a new era of studying our home planet from space.

The first black-and-white satellite images of Earth were just ten years old: a swirling mass of white clouds over back oceans. The first measurements of Earth’s temperature from space were made just a year prior in 1969 by Nimbus 3, a joint mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which became a major step in improving weather forecasts.

NASA scientists and engineers, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, were two years away from launching the first Landsat satellite in 1972, beginning a now-48-year continuous record of Earth’s land surfaces that have shown dramatic changes in forests, farming, water use, and cities over time. International scientists were 15 years away from observing proof of significant damage to the upper atmosphere ozone layer that protects life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. The 1985 Antarctic ozone hole was confirmed by data from NASA satellites and led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the most successful international environmental intervention to date.

In the 50 years since the first Earth Day, the view from space has revolutionized our understanding of Earth’s interconnected atmosphere, oceans, freshwater, ice, land, ecosystems, and climate. NASA has been at the forefront of innovation, both of the technology capable of observing properties of the Earth and in the research and researchers that take those observations and combine them with ground data and computing power to create a more holistic picture of our changing planet. Then, NASA takes one more step to get our satellite data and research into the hands of people working on the ground to solve problems and meet environmental challenges facing their communities, today and for the future.

Looking ahead at the next 50 years, we’ve asked researchers across the agency about the big questions in their fields and the role they see NASA playing to meet those challenges, from crop and water management to disaster preparedness and pollution reduction. We’ve shared them here in their own words.

Gioia Massa is the NASA Veggie project lead at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, working with astronauts on the International Space Station to grow plants in space. She’s a 2019 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Credits: NASA

I work in the area of space crop production and currently our focus is looking at supplementing the astronauts’ packaged diet with fresh produce that can be grown on the International Space Station and on longer duration missions later on. The lettuce crops that we grew in the Veggie Chamber were very similar between space and ground in terms of their nutrition and their microbiology. Plants are going to be critical for human exploration and especially as we go on to Mars. We’re going to have to become more self-sustainable and be able to produce a larger percentage of our food the more that we colonize space.

A lot of things have spun off from research for space crop production, which are now very important for Earth-based agriculture. We’re learning a lot from the people that are developing controlled environment farming systems indoors, usually in big cities to help provide fresh produce, and we are translating a lot of our space research back to them. In the future I think we’ll see more research on making plant growth systems more sustainable, for example, being able to recycle all of the inedible plant material. Things that we might think of as wastes, we have to think of as resources. Another area where I see changes coming is understanding the microbiome of the crop, where we really understand how plants, humans, and the microbiology interact, and then learn how to use this microbiome to protect plants and food.

Rich Moore is an airborne atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center. He is a 2019 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for innovative contributions to aerosol-cloud-climate interactions. Credits: NASA

Space is a great vantage point to view the Earth and how it changes over days, months and years — but the satellites are so far away. Imagine peering through a powerful camera that’s hundreds of miles away and trying to decipher the image. Some of the small details are bound to get lost, so we use airplanes, balloons and UAVs to get a closer look at what’s going on in the atmosphere.

In the future, we want to really understand what the air quality looks like at “nose-level,” where people are living and breathing. New geostationary satellites — one that was launched by South Korea this year and two that will launch in coming years, one from the U.S. and one from Europe — will measure air pollution every hour over specific regions of the world using passive remote sensors called spectrometers, which make measurements from reflected light. This will be transformative in how we track the movement of pollution in the coming decades.

Critical for giving us improved vertical views of Earth’s atmosphere will be active remote sensors such as radars, which use radio waves to make measurements, and lidars, which use lasers. Future versions of these instruments could be particularly useful in cloudy areas of the world where passive satellite imagers struggle to distinguish between particles in clear air and cloud droplets. It’s hard to draw a sharp line on where a cloud begins and ends, and some people have termed the transition region from clear to cloudy sky as the “twilight zone.” High resolution vertical data from these active sensors holds especially great promise in these regions.

JT Reager is a scientist in the terrestrial hydrology group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is a 2019 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his groundbreaking analysis of the way water moves around the globe. Credits: NASA

As Earth Scientists, we’re kind of like doctors for the planet. Just like a doctor listens to your heart with a stethoscope or takes your temperature with a thermometer, we have different instruments in space that are taking the vital signs of the planet. My specialty is water. I use a couple of satellites, particularly the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, which are a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences, to study the movement of water and how wet and dry the climate is at different times. The satellites measure changes to Earth’s gravity field. Since water is typically the only thing heavy enough and that moves fast enough to cause changes in gravity on a regular basis, the gravity data tells us a lot. We’re able use it to better understand how water moves – hydrological extremes like floods and drought, changing water resources, and how much water we might have in the future with things like climate change and a growing population.

Right now, we have more information on the state of the planet coming in than we’ve had at any point in our history. So it’s not more data that I worry about. But in the next 20 to 50 years, I hope to see a shift in terms of collectively having more respect for nature and the resources it provides, and living in better harmony with our planet.

Jeanne Holm is the Deputy Chief Information Officer and the Senior Tech Advisor for the City of Los Angeles. She recently won funding from NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Technology program to create a new platform to monitor and improve air quality across the planet. Credits: NASA

NASA doesn’t just produce amazing pictures. These satellite images can tell us if our efforts to reduce air pollution on Earth are making a perceptible difference from space. The air we breathe affects our quality of life and longevity. By planting more trees and regulating automobiles and gasoline production, we can improve air quality around the world. To that end, I am working on a project that will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to examine and mine NASA satellite and on-the-ground sensor data to show the impact of our pollution mitigation efforts.

By 2030, the City of Los Angeles hopes to see some neighborhoods vastly improve their air quality and achieve a zero fossil fuel footprint. To do this, we’ll need to improve how we construct new buildings, retrofit existing buildings and build transportation infrastructure to allow for more public transit and autonomous electric vehicles. We’ll also need to think about ways we can realistically and sustainably change human behavior. Younger generations want to do things differently; we can empower them to do just that.

To learn more about how NASA studies our home planet today, visit:


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

NASA outlines lunar surface sustainability concept

ASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover gets its wheels and air brakes

On Earth Day 50, NASA researchers look to the future