WASHINGTON — NASA has selected 13 regions around the south pole of the moon that it is considering for the first crewed landing of the Artemis program later this decade.
The 13 locations released by NASA Aug. 19 reach include multiple sites that could host landings by SpaceX’s Starship vehicle serving as the lunar lander for the Artemis 3 mission that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon since Apollo 17 a half-century ago.
NASA and SpaceX officials working on Artemis “have worked very closely with our agency’s scientists and technologists to identify these 13 regions,” said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for the Artemis Campaign Development Division at NASA, during a call with reporters about the landing sites. All the regions are of interest to scientists, he said, “as well as meet the Artemis mission planning constraints, which can be challenging.”
The 13 locations, each about 15 by 15 kilometers, are located within six degrees of latitude of the south pole. They are named:
- Faustini Rim A
- Peak Near Shackleton
- Connecting Ridge
- Connecting Ridge Extension
- de Gerlache Rim 1
- de Gerlache Rim 2
- de Gerlache-Kocher Massif
- Malapert Massif
- Leibnitz Beta Plateau
- Nobile Rim 1
- Nobile Rim 2
- Amundsen Rim
Each location contains multiple landing sites, regions 100 meters across that would be landing zones for Starships. Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist at NASA Headquarters, said each region has at least 10 landing sites “and in many of them there are more than that.”
Different regions may be selected based on when the mission takes place because of changing lighting conditions. “Specific landing sites are tightly coupled to the timing of the launch window, so multiple regions ensure flexibility to launch throughout the year,” the agency noted in a statement.
The regions meet several requirements, including providing continuous access to sunlight for six and a half days, the duration of the Artemis 3 landing, while being close enough to permanently shadowed regions that they can be reached on moonwalks by the astronauts. Those permanently shadowed regions may harbor ice deposits that both are of scientific interest and could be resources for future crewed missions.
Kirasich said he hopes to narrow down the list of landing sites about 18 months before Artemis 3, currently scheduled to launch in late 2025, to give mission planners time to prepare procedures specific to each site. Because of lighting variations that change over time, there will be several even for a single launch period. “Exactly how many we don’t know yet,” he said. “We have a lot to learn between now and then.”
NASA said it will consult with the broader science and engineering community about the selected regions to get insights on the regions. That is expected to include the annual meeting of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group Aug. 23-25 in Maryland. The agency said it will continue working with SpaceX to ensure those sites are still compatible with the lunar lander version of Starship.
Bleacher said the selection process won’t depend on data from future missions, including orbiters, landers and rovers. “The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter did a great job,” he said, a spacecraft originally developed for the Constellation lunar exploration program in the late 2000s and remains in service providing high-resolution images, although its orbit no longer takes it over the polar regions.
He added, though, that NASA will welcome data from future missions, like the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission launching in late 2024 to search for volatiles in the south polar regions of the moon. “Any data is helpful, and we’re happy to have it, but we don’t require additional data in order to complete an Artemis 3 landing at these 13 regions at this time.”
“We can do exciting science at all of them,” Sarah Noble, Artemis lunar science lead in NASA’s planetary science division, said of the 13 landing regions on the call, which took place an hour after NASA released the list of locations under consideration.
“Many of our scientists have gotten hold of this press release an hour ago and are poring over it,” she said. “Everybody already has favorite places.”