A New Wave of Moon Exploration is Emerging

Several moons have recently been the source of space missions and discoveries, and they are a new focus in the search for extraterrestrial life.

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By Lauren Chin

Moons are unique parts of our solar system. Like the planets they orbit, moons have varying atmospheres, from Saturn’s icy Enceladus to Jupiter’s lava-filled Io. They even perform vital tasks, as the gravitational force between the Earth and the Moon regulates the Earth’s axis and tides. The Earth’s tilt of 23.5 degrees on its stable axis caused by the gravitational pull of the Moon regulates the four seasons. Without the Moon, tilt shifts from an unstable axis would result in extreme weather conditions, such as another ice age. Additionally, without ebb and flow, some scientists speculate that human life might not even exist since the chemical reactions facilitated by constant changes in water level may have helped produce nucleic acids—the building blocks of our DNA.

This year, several of these essential celestial bodies—including Earth’s—have been subject to new and groundbreaking developments, especially regarding the search for extraterrestrial life.

An Abundance of Exploration on Our Moon

Our moon is home to several new missions, with new countries entering the field of space exploration. Most recently, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) collected the world’s first lunar rocks from the Moon in more than 40 years. During the Chang’e 5 mission, which lasted from November 23, 2020 to December 16, 2020, the spacecraft collected roughly four pounds of lunar rocks from the Mons Rümker peak on the near side of the Moon. Through these rocks, China aimed to learn more about the composition of the Moon and its past volcanic activity.

The last time lunar rocks were collected was in the 1960s and 1970s during the United States’s Apollo missions and the Soviet Union’s Luna missions. During these missions, the Moon’s peak volcanic activity was estimated to be around 3.5 billion years ago. However, the unexplored Mons Rümker peak, previously an active volcano site, could reveal a new age of peak activity if the newly collected rocks are younger than the ones collected decades ago. The rocks may also provide clues as to what ceased volcanic activity on the Moon.

Though the CNSA is seemingly late in joining space exploration efforts, its first full lunar mission, Chang’e 3 in 2013, made significant contributions to lunar science by functioning as a lunar observatory. The lander spacecraft contained an ultraviolet telescope that observed celestial bodies. In 2019, the Chang’e 4 mission also made history as the first spacecraft to land on the far side, or the “dark side,” of the Moon. We can never see the far side of the Moon because the Moon takes the same time to rotate about its axis as it does to orbit around the Earth. This creates tidal locking, where the same side of the Moon—the near side—always faces Earth. The Chang’e 4 spacecraft initiated research on the more unknown and mysterious side of the Moon, opening the door for new discoveries of something we can never see in the sky.

China isn’t the only new explorer, though. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to send a rover to the Moon in 2024. The rover, named Rashid, will study the chemical properties of lunar dust and solar wind plasma—the charged particles that flow above the lunar surface. If successful, the UAE will make history as the first Arab country to explore the Moon and the fourth country overall.

In 2026, NASA plans on sending the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon’s South Pole to explore the existence of water on the Moon. VIPER will drill roughly one meter into ice reserves to understand how water is distributed on the Moon and how it can potentially be used as a source of water to sustain human travel to the Moon.

Helicopter Travel on Titan

Beyond exploration on our moon, NASA is expanding its lunar missions to other moons in the solar system. In February, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars with a small helicopter named Ingenuity. NASA plans on conducting a similar mission by sending a drone named Dragonfly to Titan, one of Saturn’s icy moons with frigid surface temperatures of around −290 degrees Fahrenheit. Similar to Perseverance and Ingenuity, Dragonfly’s mission is to search for signs of life on Titan. While low temperatures prevent life on Titan’s surface, life may exist in oceans that flow beneath it.

When the drone arrives in 2034, it will spend nearly three years studying chemical processes on the moon to search for similarities to processes on Earth. It will also study a crater that used to be a water bed, just like the landing spot of Perseverance and Ingenuity.

Scientists at NASA believe Titan may contain signs of life because it has a methane cycle comparable to Earth’s water cycle and an atmosphere similar to that of Earth’s. Just like the Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is primarily composed of nitrogen. Titan also has similar weather processes, such as rainfall and snowfall. Clouds and lakes on Titan’s surface are primarily composed of methane rather than water. Despite the difference in compounds, the similarity between Titan’s and Earth’s atmospheres and their chemical processes hint that there may be potential for great discoveries of life forms on this moon.

Europa May Glow in the Dark

Slightly closer to Earth, Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, might glow in the dark. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory blasted electrons on ice with a similar chemical composition to the ice on Europa’s surface and found that the simulated ice emitted a green glow similar to objects that glow in the dark. This phosphorescence is caused by Jupiter’s magnetic field that deflects high-energy electrons to Europa.

NASA will be able to study this glowing property in depth when they launch the Europa Clipper, a satellite that will collect data while orbiting Europa. While the launch date is tentative, it is expected to be before the end of this decade. Like many of NASA’s recent missions, including sending Dragonfly to Titan, Europa Clipper will study Europa’s 10 to 15-mile deep ice shell and investigate whether an ocean exists underneath in search of signs that Europa may be habitable.

The rise in exploration of moons—both ours and others—is a signal that we should pay more attention to these distinctive celestial bodies. The solar system contains an unprecedented amount of scientific opportunities and properties that we have yet to explore, especially with China and the UAE expressing lunar ambitions. With each mission that is launched, moons become larger pieces in the puzzle to finding what exists beyond Earth. If you’ve ever wondered whether we’re alone in the universe, moons may have answers for you.