We sent the first humans to land on the Moon in 1969. Since then, only of 12 men have stepped foot on the lunar surface – but we left robotic explorers behind to continue gathering science data. And now, we’re preparing to return. Establishing a sustained presence on and near the Moon will help us learn to live off of our home planet and prepare for travel to Mars.
To help establish ourselves on and near the Moon, we are working with a few select American companies. We will buy space on commercial robotic landers, along with other customers, to deliver our payloads to the lunar surface. We’re even developing lunar instruments and tools that will fly on missions as early as 2019!
Through partnerships with American companies, we are leading a flexible and sustainable approach to deep space missions. These early commercial delivery missions will also help inform new space systems we build to send humans to the Moon in the next decade. Involving American companies and stimulating the space market with these new opportunities to send science instruments and new technologies to deep space will be similar to how we use companies like Northrop Grumman and SpaceX to send cargo to the International Space Station now. These selected companies will provide a rocket and cargo space on their robotic landers for us (and others!) to send science and technology to our nearest neighbor.
So who are these companies that will get to ferry science instruments and new technologies to the Moon?
Here’s a digital “catalogue” of the organizations and their spacecraft that will be available for lunar services over the next decade:
Astrobotic Technology, Inc.
Deep Space Systems
Firefly Aerospace, Inc.
Cedar Park, TX
Intuitive Machines, LLC
Lockheed Martin Space
Masten Space Systems, Inc.
Moon Express, Inc.
Cape Canaveral, FL
Orbit Beyond, Inc.
We are thrilled to be working with these companies to enable us to investigate the Moon in new ways. In order to expand humanity’s presence beyond Earth, we need to return to the Moon before we go to Mars.
The Moon helps us to learn how to live and work on another planetary body while being only three days away from home – instead of several months. The Moon also holds enormous potential for testing new technologies, like prospecting for water ice and turning it into drinking water, oxygen and rocket fuel. Plus, there’s so much science to be done!
The Moon can help us understand the early history of the solar system, how planets migrated to their current formation and much more. Understanding how the Earth-Moon system formed is difficult because those ancient rocks no longer exist here on Earth. They have been recycled by plate tectonics, but the Moon still has rocks that date back to the time of its formation! It’s like traveling to a cosmic time machine!
Join us on this exciting journey as we expand humanity’s presence beyond Earth.
When we return to the Moon, much will seem unchanged since
humans first arrived in 1969. The flags placed by Apollo
astronauts will be untouched by any breeze. The footprints left by man’s “small
step” on its surface will still be visible across the Moon’s dusty landscape.
Our next generation of lunar explorers will require
pioneering innovation alongside proven communications technologies. We’re
developing groundbreaking technologies to help these astronauts fulfill their
In space communications networks, lasers will supplement
traditional radio communications, providing an advancement these explorers
require. The technology, called optical communications, has been in development
by our engineers over decades.
communications, in infrared, has a higher frequency than radio,
allowing more data to be encoded into each transmission. Optical communications
systems also have reduced size, weight and power requirements. A smaller system
leaves more room for science instruments; a weight reduction can mean a less
expensive launch, and reduced power allows batteries to last longer.
On the path through this “Decade of Light,” where laser
joins radio to enable mission success, we must test and demonstrate a number of
optical communications innovations.
The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration
(LCRD) mission will send data between ground stations in Hawaii and California
through a spacecraft in an orbit stationary relative to Earth’s rotation. The
demo will be an important first step in developing next-generation Earth-relay
satellites that can support instruments generating too much data for today’s
networks to handle.
In deep space, we’re working to prove laser technologies
with our Deep Space
Optical Communications mission. A laser’s wavelength is smaller than
radio, leaving less margin for error in pointing back at Earth from very, very
far away. Additionally, as the time it takes for data to reach Earth increases,
satellites need to point ahead to make sure the beam reaches the right spot at
the right time. The Deep Space Optical Communications mission will ensure that
our communications engineers can meet those challenges head-on.
An integral part of our journey back to the Moon will be our Orion
spacecraft. It looks remarkably similar to the Apollo capsule, yet it
hosts cutting-edge technologies. NASA’s Laser Enhanced Mission Communications
Navigation and Operational Services (LEMNOS) will provide Orion with data rates
as much as 100 times higher than current systems.
LEMNOS’s optical terminal, the Orion EM-2 Optical
Communications System, will enable live, 4K ultra-high-definition video from
the Moon. By comparison, early Apollo cameras filmed only 10 frames per second
in grainy black-and-white. Optical communications will provide a “giant leap”
in communications technology, joining radio for NASA’s return to the Moon and the
Communications and Navigation program office provides strategic oversight to optical
communications research. At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt,
Maryland, the Exploration and Space Communications projects division is guiding
a number of optical communications technologies from infancy to fruition. If
you’re ever near Goddard, stop by our visitor center to check out our new
optical communications exhibit. For more information, visit nasa.gov/SCaN
From deep below the soil at Earth’s polar regions to Pluto’s frozen heart, ice exists all over the solar system…and beyond. From right here on our home planet to moons and planets millions of miles away, we’re exploring ice and watching how it changes. Here’s 10 things to know:
1.Earth’s Changing Ice Sheets
An Antarctic ice sheet. Credit: NASA
Ice sheets are massive expanses of ice that stay frozen from year to year and cover more than 6 million square miles. On Earth, ice sheets extend across most of Greenland and Antarctica. These two ice sheets contain more than 99 percent of the planet’s freshwater. However, our ice sheets are sensitive to the changing climate.
Data from our GRACE satellites show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland have been losing mass since at least 2002, and the speed at which they’re losing mass is accelerating.
2. Sea Ice at Earth’s Poles
Earth’s polar oceans are covered by stretches of ice that freezes and melts with the seasons and moves with the wind and ocean currents. During the autumn and winter, the sea ice grows until it reaches an annual maximum extent, and then melts back to an annual minimum at the end of summer. Sea ice plays a crucial role in regulating climate – it’s much more reflective than the dark ocean water, reflecting up to 70 percent of sunlight back into space; in contrast, the ocean reflects only about 7 percent of the sunlight that reaches it. Sea ice also acts like an insulating blanket on top of the polar oceans, keeping the polar wintertime oceans warm and the atmosphere cool.
Some Arctic sea ice has survived multiple years of summer melt, but our research indicates there’s less and less of this older ice each year. The maximum and minimum extents are shrinking, too. Summertime sea ice in the Arctic Ocean now routinely covers about 30-40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s, when near-continuous satellite observations began. These changes in sea ice conditions enhance the rate of warming in the Arctic, already in progress as more sunlight is absorbed by the ocean and more heat is put into the atmosphere from the ocean, all of which may ultimately affect global weather patterns.
3. Snow Cover on Earth
Snow extends the cryosphere from the poles and into more temperate regions.
Snow and ice cover most of Earth’s polar regions throughout the year, but the coverage at lower latitudes depends on the season and elevation. High-elevation landscapes such as the Tibetan Plateau and the Andes and Rocky Mountains maintain some snow cover almost year-round. In the Northern Hemisphere, snow cover is more variable and extensive than in the Southern Hemisphere.
Snow cover the most reflective surface on Earth and works like sea ice to help cool our climate. As it melts with the seasons, it provides drinking water to communities around the planet.
4. Permafrost on Earth
Tundra polygons on Alaska’s North Slope. As permafrost thaws, this area is likely to be a source of atmospheric carbon before 2100. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Charles Miller
Permafrost is soil that stays frozen solid for at least two years in a row. It occurs in the Arctic, Antarctic and high in the mountains, even in some tropical latitudes. The Arctic’s frozen layer of soil can extend more than 200 feet below the surface. It acts like cold storage for dead organic matter – plants and animals.
In parts of the Arctic, permafrost is thawing, which makes the ground wobbly and unstable and can also release those organic materials from their icy storage. As the permafrost thaws, tiny microbes in the soil wake back up and begin digesting these newly accessible organic materials, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.
Two campaigns, CARVE and ABoVE, study Arctic permafrost and its potential effects on the climate as it thaws.
5. Glaciers on the Move
Did you know glaciers are constantly moving? The masses of ice act like slow-motion rivers, flowing under their own weight. Glaciers are formed by falling snow that accumulates over time and the slow, steady creep of flowing ice. About 10 percent of land area on Earth is covered with glacial ice, in Greenland, Antarctica and high in mountain ranges; glaciers store much of the world’s freshwater.
Our satellites and airplanes have a bird’s eye view of these glaciers and have watched the ice thin and their flows accelerate, dumping more freshwater ice into the ocean, raising sea level.
6. Pluto’s Icy Heart
The nitrogen ice glaciers on Pluto appear to carry an intriguing cargo: numerous, isolated hills that may be fragments of water ice from Pluto’s surrounding uplands. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Pluto’s most famous feature – that heart! – is stone cold. First spotted by our New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, the heart’s western lobe, officially named Sputnik Planitia, is a deep basin containing three kinds of ices – frozen nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide.
Models of Pluto’s temperatures show that, due the dwarf planet’s extreme tilt (119 degrees compared to Earth’s 23 degrees), over the course of its 248-year orbit, the latitudes near 30 degrees north and south are the coldest places – far colder than the poles. Ice would have naturally formed around these latitudes, including at the center of Sputnik Planitia.
New Horizons also saw strange ice formations resembling giant knife blades. This “bladed terrain” contains structures as tall as skyscrapers and made almost entirely of methane ice, likely formed as erosion wore away their surfaces, leaving dramatic crests and sharp divides. Similar structures can be found in high-altitude snowfields along Earth’s equator, though on a very different scale.
7. Polar Ice on Mars
This image, combining data from two instruments aboard our Mars Global Surveyor, depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mars has bright polar caps of ice easily visible from telescopes on Earth. A seasonal cover of carbon dioxide ice and snow advances and retreats over the poles during the Martian year, much like snow cover on Earth.
This animation shows a side-by-side comparison of CO2 ice at the north (left) and south (right) Martian poles over the course of a typical year (two Earth years). This simulation isn’t based on photos; instead, the data used to create it came from two infrared instruments capable of studying the poles even when they’re in complete darkness. This data were collected by our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Global Surveyor. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
During summertime in the planet’s north, the remaining northern polar cap is all water ice; the southern cap is water ice as well, but remains covered by a relatively thin layer of carbon dioxide ice even in summertime.
Scientists using radar data from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found a record of the most recent Martian ice age in the planet’s north polar ice cap. Research indicates a glacial period ended there about 400,000 years ago. Understanding seasonal ice behavior on Mars helps scientists refine models of the Red Planet’s past and future climate.
8. Ice Feeds a Ring of Saturn
Wispy fingers of bright, icy material reach tens of thousands of kilometers outward from Saturn’s moon Enceladus into the E ring, while the moon’s active south polar jets continue to fire away. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Saturn’s rings and many of its moons are composed of mostly water ice – and one of its moons is actually creating a ring. Enceladus, an icy Saturnian moon, is covered in “tiger stripes.” These long cracks at Enceladus’ South Pole are venting its liquid ocean into space and creating a cloud of fine ice particles over the moon’s South Pole. Those particles, in turn, form Saturn’s E ring, which spans from about 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers) to about 260,000 miles (420,000 kilometers) above Saturn’s equator. Our Cassini spacecraft discovered this venting process and took high-resolution images of the system.
Jets of icy particles burst from Saturn’s moon Enceladus in this brief movie sequence of four images taken on Nov. 27, 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
9. Ice Rafts on Europa
View of a small region of the thin, disrupted, ice crust in the Conamara region of Jupiter’s moon Europa showing the interplay of surface color with ice structures. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa is crisscrossed by long fractures. During its flybys of Europa, our Galileo spacecraft observed icy domes and ridges, as well as disrupted terrain including crustal plates that are thought to have broken apart and “rafted” into new positions. An ocean with an estimated depth of 40 to 100 miles (60 to 150 kilometers) is believed to lie below that 10- to 15-mile-thick (15 to 25 km) shell of ice.
The rafts, strange pits and domes suggest that Europa’s surface ice could be slowly turning over due to heat from below. Our Europa Clipper mission, targeted to launch in 2022, will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Europa to see whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.
10. Crater Ice on Our Moon
The image shows the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right), detected by our Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument. Credit: NASA
In the darkest and coldest parts of our Moon, scientists directly observed definitive evidence of water ice. These ice deposits are patchy and could be ancient. Most of the water ice lies inside the shadows of craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above -250 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the very small tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis, sunlight never reaches these regions.
A team of scientists used data from a our instrument on India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft to identify specific signatures that definitively prove the water ice. The Moon Mineralogy Mapper not only picked up the reflective properties we’d expect from ice, but was able to directly measure the distinctive way its molecules absorb infrared light, so it can differentiate between liquid water or vapor and solid ice.
With enough ice sitting at the surface – within the top few millimeters – water would possibly be accessible as a resource for future expeditions to explore and even stay on the Moon, and potentially easier to access than the water detected beneath the Moon’s surface.
11. Bonus: Icy World Beyond Our Solar System!
With an estimated temperature of just 50K, OGLE-2005-BLG-390L b is the chilliest exoplanet yet discovered. Pictured here is an artist’s concept. Credit: NASA
OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, the icy exoplanet otherwise known as Hoth, orbits a star more than 20,000 light years away and close to the center of our Milky Way galaxy. It’s locked in the deepest of deep freezes, with a surface temperature estimated at minus 364 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 220 Celsius)!
On Saturday, October 20, NASA will host the ninth annual International Observe the Moon Night. One day each year, everyone on Earth is invited to observe and learn about the Moon together, and to celebrate the cultural and personal connections we all have with our nearest celestial neighbor.
There are a number of ways to celebrate. You can attend an event, host your own, or just look up! Here are 10 of our favorite ways to observe the Moon:
The simplest way to observe the Moon is simply to look up. The Moon is the brightest object in our night sky, the second brightest in our daytime sky and can be seen from all around the world — from the remote and dark Atacama Desert in Chile to the brightly lit streets of Tokyo. On October 20, the near side of the Moon, or the side facing Earth, will be about 80 percent illuminated, rising in the early evening.
The Moon and Venus are great targets for binoculars. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford
With some magnification help, you will be able to focus in on specific features on the Moon, like the Sea of Tranquility or the bright Copernicus Crater. Download our Moon maps for some guided observing on Saturday.
Plan a lunar hike with Moontrek. Moontrek is an interactive Moon map made using NASA data from our lunar spacecraft. Fly anywhere you’d like on the Moon, calculate the distance or the elevation of a mountain to plan your lunar hike, or layer attributes of the lunar surface and temperature. If you have a virtual reality headset, you can experience Moontrek in 3D.
Video credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Ernie Wright
Make a playlist of Moon songs. For inspiration, check out this list of lunar tunes. We also recommend LRO’s official music video, The Moon and More, featuring Javier Colon, season 1 winner of NBC’s “The Voice.” Or you can just watch this video featuring “Clair de Lune,” by French composer Claude Debussy, over and over.
9. See the Moon through the eyes of a spacecraft
Image credit: NASA/GSFC/MIT
Visible light is just one tool that we use to explore our universe. Our spacecraft contain many different types of instruments to analyze the Moon’s composition and environment. Review the Moon’s gravity field with data from the GRAIL spacecraft or decipher the maze of this slope map from the laser altimeter onboard LRO. This collection from LRO features images of the Moon’s temperature and topography. You can learn more about our different missions to explore the Moon here.
10. Continue your observations throughout the year
An important part of observing the Moon is to see how it changes over time. International Observe the Moon Night is the perfect time to start a Moon journal. See how the shape of the Moon changes over the course of a month, and keep track of where and what time it rises and sets. Observe the Moon all year long with these tools and techniques!
However you choose to celebrate International Observe the Moon Night, we want to hear about it! Register your participation and share your experiences on social media with #ObserveTheMoon or on our Facebook page. Happy observing!