As one mission returns to Earth, three more make for the Moon

Japan and the United Arab Emirates launched landers, while JPL has a boring old satellite

Humanity has retrieved one attempt to explore its natural satellite, and launched three more.

The retrieval was conducted by NASA, which landed its Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday afternoon, marking the end of the first Artemis mission to the Moon and its orbital environs.

Immediately after the splashdown, NASA spent two hours performing tests to discover what its new atmosphere-skipping re-entry plan – which saw the Orion capsule bounce off the gaseous blanket surrounding Earth in much the same way a stone skips off water – had done to the heat shield and other materials.

To retrieve Orion, a team of experts – including divers, engineers and weather specialists from groups like the US Department of Defense, Navy, Space Force, NASA and Lockheed Martin – attached a cable called a winch line and several additional tending lines to the crew module, before hoisting the spacecraft into a custom designed cradle aboard USS Portland for transport to Kennedy Space Center for post-flight analysis.

Artemis I launched carrying Orion on November 16 after months of delay caused by both technical issues and weather. Orion then began its 1.4 million mile (2.25 million km) journey around the Moon, equipped with three dummies wearing more than 5,600 sensors and radiation detectors.

The results will inform measures for future crewed versions of the mission – a second trip that sends astronauts instead of dummies to orbit around the Moon, and a third that will take astronauts to the lunar surface itself.

Just as Orion returned to Earth from Luna, humanity sent two more payloads to the big grey rock, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

One of those missions is Japanese start-up ispace's HAKUTO-R Mission 1, as documented in a time lapse by spaceflight photographer John Kraus.

According to ispace, the mission has established communication with ground control and confirmed its power supply and stability.

The mission is the first private attempt at a lunar landing. If it goes to plan, the craft will touch down in April 2023.

"Our first mission will lay the groundwork for unleashing the Moon's potential and transforming it into a robust and vibrant economic system," said ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada in a canned statement.

ispace plans to launch a second mission to the moon in 2024. A third is planned for 2025 as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which seeks to outsource Moon transport services to private industry. After that, it plans on launching lunar missions twice a year as humans colonize the Moon with landers, rovers, astronauts and other equipment.

"We look forward to contributing to NASA's Artemis program as a commercial lunar transportation service and pioneering the development of future industries and connecting the Earth to the Moon and beyond," said Hakamada.

Within HAKUTO-R's payload lies another nation's first Lunar venture: a rover named Rashid from the United Arab Emirates.

Equipped with a pair of high resolution cameras, a microscopic camera, a thermal imaging device and a Langmuir probe, the ten-kilogram solar powered rover will analyze the plasma on the lunar surface, study Moon dust (which is notoriously sticky) and investigate what it takes to roll around the lunar surface.

Accompanying HAKUTO-R aboard the Falcon 9 was Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Lunar Flashlight mission. In approximately three months' time the briefcase-sized satellite will enter a lunar orbit, where it will use infrared lasers and an onboard spectrometer to look for surface water and ice in its south pole's craters – areas that are permanently shaded.

"The science data collected by the mission will be compared with observations made by other lunar missions to help reveal the distribution of surface water ice on the Moon for potential use by future astronauts," said JPL. ®

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