NASA's planned moon landing in 2024 is definitely headed to the South Pole

The agency plans to have a communication satellite orbiting the moon by 2022.

If you watched United States Vice President Mike Pence's speech this week challenging NASA to send astronauts to the Moon's South Pole, maybe you noticed that it had something in common with what our own Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2018 when he announced that ISRO should — and will — put Indian astronauts in space by 2022. Politicians are suddenly interested in space. And for once, it looks like a win for space and not just politicos.

The announcements from both leaders represent some rather monumental challenges. For India, it's about our very own ISRO sending astronauts into space for the first time ever. For the US, it's about returning to the Moon, a celestial object that hasn't seen a human in almost 50 years. It's been so long since we went there that even conspiracy theorists have run out of new material to explain what's taken them so long to return there!

Word on the street is that a combination of ambition and lack of funding are big reasons for it. NASA says it has held back to make their next mission manyfold more impactful, with gear to explore the Moon's resources and technology to mine it for a future lunar colony. But it's clear now — Americans are heading back to the moon in five years, and as the NASA Chief said earlier in the year, this time it'll be to stay.

NASA plans to have a communication satellite orbiting the moon by 2022, which is a big deal for any future moon missions. The science-rich lunar South Pole will give planetary scientists nothing short of a leap in solar system science.

The South Pole gets a steady supply of sunlight for power and a direct line of sight to Earth, making communication relays both ways easier. The terrain of the South Pole, though, is more dramatic and unique. Sunlight doesn't reach the bottom of some of the craters there, making them cold traps that preserve a record of the early Solar System.

NASAs planned moon landing in 2024 is definitely headed to the South Pole

Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt collecting lunar rake samples during the Apollo 17 mission. Schmitt was the lunar module pilot for the mission. The Lunar Rake was used to collect discrete samples of rocks and rock chips in different sizes. Image courtesy: NASA

NASA's Orion spacecraft, which will likely be the vessel modified for the mission, can host up to four astronauts, but the lunar lander's size hasn't yet been confirmed, David Kring, a planetary scientist at Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), told Forbes. He adds that at least two astronauts will set foot on the lunar surface in the next landing.

The astronauts will also be collecting samples of regolith and a boulder or two from the large basin in the South Pole formed by an impact — the 4.2 km-deep Shackleton Crater.

Another attractive possibility NASA hopes to explore is the South Pole-Aitken basin — an enormous, 2,500-km wide, 13-km-deep impact crater. It is the moon's oldest and largest known basin. Foremost on the list of priorities for going to the Aitken basin is collecting samples of the melt produced by the large impact event that created it, Kraig told Forbes.

25 Moon Trees, like this one at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, were planted as living monuments to the 1971 Apollo 14 mission. Image: NASA

25 Moon Trees, like this one at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, were planted as living monuments to the 1971 Apollo 14 mission. Image: NASA

Experts believe that the basin was created by an impact that would have caused a mass extinction event if it had struck Earth instead.

The South polar region also allows for fairly rapid economic development of polar ice as a space resource, to support life and then as a propellant for spacecraft.

NASA scientists are also keen on studying the geological past of the moon through chunks of moon rock from the better-preserved South Pole. This is to understand a chunk of ancient history missing entirely from Earth's geological past, called the Great Unconformity (GU). It remains one of geology's deepest mysteries to date.

"There is no question that the Moon is the best place in the entire solar system to make the greatest advances in our understanding of solar system history," Kring said.

And the best part? It's less than a 72-hour trip away.

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