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January 23, 2023

The Artemis program just took a giant leap toward returning to the Moon! With the First National Cislunar Science & Technology Strategy press release of November 17, the U.S. is working to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface. Read on to find out what was in this press release and what role USGS Astrogeology will play.

White House First National Cislunar Science & Technology Strategy Press Release 

On November 17, the White House released this press release, outlining the National Cislunar Science & Technology Strategy developed by participants from across the U.S. (including the U.S. Geological Survey). (Cislunar means the area outside of Earth’s orbit between the Earth and the Moon.) This document is a basic guide that the U.S. Government will use to advance scientific investigation and exploration of the Moon and Cislunar space.  Just like during the Apollo era, it takes a large workforce to grow a robust space program, and the Press Release and Strategy Document state how the Artemis program is committed to investing in a highly diverse science and engineering workforce to accomplish this mission. The press release was broken down into four objectives, described here: 

 

 1. Support research and development to enable long-term growth 

Cislunar space will be the testbed for the development of new science, technology, policies, and partnerships. These new research areas will not only support lunar exploration, but exploration on Mars and into the rest of the solar system. To accomplish this objective, the Working Group determined that we would need to make a variety of technological and workforce advances to meet the needs of current and future growth. This includes technologies to enable a long-term human presence (including reducing negative effects that space has on the body), larger social science research projects related to crewed exploration, technologies to enable science on the lunar far side and poles, and the development and increased support of programs to train and retain a diverse space workforce. These advancements go hand-in-hand with identifying high priority science opportunities to test these technologies and develop a creative and sustained lunar workforce. USGS Pathways Intern and lunar scientists Lori Pigue says

"There’s a place for everyone in space. Space exploration has inspired so many artists, engineers, scientists, writers, and philosophers, and we’re going to continue inspiring current and future generations with how we’re building Artemis." 

Pigue works closely with many people within Astrogeology in BeAJEDI (Belonging, Accessibility, Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) efforts, reducing barriers for current and future community members and directly addressing the Working Group goal of training and retaining a diverse space workforce. “Beyond the standard access to trainings, advocates, and mentors that any organization should be making available and supporting, Astrogeology is also making a concerted effort to make sure that every person knows that they belong here, that their contributions are recognized, and that they can make their voices heard without fear of retaliation,” Pigue said.

 

 2. Expand international Science & Technology cooperation  

There will be many countries and organizations involved in space travel, and it is essential that we all cooperate and contribute to a healthy future in space exploration. The Working Group determined that a year-long focused International Lunar Year (ILY) would need to be developed and led, to foster international cooperation and resource sharing quickly.  Coordinating the use of lunar data centers, including the NASA Planetary Data System that USGS Astrogeology helps operate, will be a goal of the ILY. Another goal of this objective is to lay out best practices in spaceflight, reducing hazards in Cislunar space and ensuring a safe working environment for all. 

NASA Lunar Gateway Artist’s Concept, Image credit: NASA
NASA's Lunar Gateway Artist's Concept, Image Credit: NASA

3. Extend U.S. space situational awareness capabilities  

As the pace of lunar exploration increases, more orbiters, Cislunar stations, and launch vehicles will be occupying Cislunar space. Humanity will need to improve the ability to trace spacecraft and debris and understand gaps in knowledge to avoid collisions and mishaps, and the working group has prioritized this work. We’ll also need to develop better data management and catalogs about objects in Cislunar space and share these among those who will be impacted by these objects (both in the literal and figurative sense). 

 

4. Improve navigation and communication 

Everyone benefits from advanced GPS technology on our phones and high-resolution maps at our fingertips. These are supported by a well-connected architecture of navigation, communication, and positioning satellites. Moonwalkers won’t have such luxuries until we develop those things for the Moon. We will need to improve the lunar reference frame that defines latitude and longitude on the Moon, and develop lunar communications and navigation structures in a way that supports ground operations in the near- and long-term. We will also be working with private and international partners in the future of space exploration and must ensure that all partners have access to navigation and communication technologies. 

USGS Astrogeology has and will continue to help in these areas of lunar positioning and navigation.  Geodesist and IAU chair Brent Archinal reflects:

“We previously did work in the late 2000s to better define the Moon’s coordinate reference frame, which is used for all lunar navigation and positioning.  Now we are working on and improving that system to allow for even higher accuracy positioning, good to a meter or better on the Moon’s surface.” 

Such work directly addresses the need for “a Lunar reference frame tied to the celestial and terrestrial reference frames” called out for in the strategy document.  In addition, knowing one’s coordinates or the coordinates of a spacecraft or other target on the lunar surface doesn’t help much unless you have maps so you can tell what is at the given coordinates and where you are relative to locations and features of interest.   

Since the 1960s, Astrogeology has been helping to process lunar images and other data, and created such maps, whether globally, regionally, or at landing site scales.  This was needed for the U.S.  lunar missions of the 1960s and 1970s and is still needed now in the 2020s.  For example, we are currently working with colleagues at Arizona State University to provide high-resolution image mosaics (maps) of the north and south poles of the Moon. These serve as the foundation for planning landings, rover traverses, and other operations on the lunar surface.  The south pole mosaic could be used directly by upcoming NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) robotic landed missions and the planned 2025 Artemis III human mission. 

Artemis I Orion Capsule with the Moon and Earth in the background. Image Credit: NASA
Artemis I Orion Capsule with the Moon and Earth in the background.

An orbit that’s come full circle 

Astrogeology was founded to assist with Apollo era science and engineering problems related to exploration, and it’s no surprise that Astrogeology is involved with developing Artemis era science and engineering solutions. The Apollo program used Northern Arizona to test equipment and techniques in the lunar-like surfaces of the San Francisco Volcanic Field and Meteor Crater, and the Artemis program is continuing that tradition. Astrogeology has made a name for itself in geodesy, planetary mapping, planetary geology, and terrestrial analogs and will continue to develop as an authority in planetary defense, planetary resources, and all things Cislunar space.