Artemis astronauts engage in lunar surface operations a short distance from a generic lander and rover in this NASA artist’s concept.

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested Sept. 14 that NASA would be open to sending the first Artemis human landing mission to a location other than the south pole of the moon.

In remarks at an online meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), Bridenstine said there could be benefits to sending a mission to the moon’s equatorial regions instead, including the vicinity of an Apollo landing site.

“If you’re going to go to the equatorial region again, how are you going to learn the most? You could argue that you’ll learn the most by going to the places where we put gear in the past,” he said, referring to the equipment left behind at the Apollo landing sites.

“There could be scientific discoveries there and, of course, just the inspiration of going back to an original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well,” he said. He also cited creating “norms of behavior” for protecting those sites from other expeditions.

NASA has been working toward returning humans to the moon at in the south polar regions, where deposits of water ice thought to exist there are both of scientific interest and may provide resources to support human exploration.

A south polar landing was the goal set by Vice President Mike Pence in his March 2019 speech at a National Space Council meeting that called on NASA to move up a human landing from 2028 to 2024. “NASA already knows that the lunar south pole holds great scientific, economic and strategic value, but now it’s time to commit to go there,” Pence said in that speech.

Bridenstine’s remarks, though, suggested that the agency might be reconsidering those plans. A landing at the poles is more technically challenging, and no human or robotic mission yet has successfully landed near either the north or south pole of the moon. However, commercial robotic landers, performing missions for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, are scheduled to land near the south pole before the Artemis 3 landing.

Bridenstine treated a landing away from the south pole as, for now, a hypothetical scenario. “If we made a determination that the south pole might be out of reach for Artemis 3, which I’m not saying it is or isn’t,” then a landing near an Apollo site might be an option, he said. “Those decisions haven’t been made at this time.”

However, the possibility that the Artemis 3 mission might not land at the south polar region of the moon piqued the curiosity of scientists attending the LEAG meeting, who asked NASA representatives in later sessions about the possibility of alternative landing sites.

That included a “town hall” session with NASA officials involved in a science definition team for Artemis 3, working to identify science priorities for the mission. A shift in landing site would affect the science that could be done in the mission.

“For the time being, we have been directed to do this activity looking at a polar landing site,” said Renee Weber, chair of the science definition team at the Marshall Space Flight Center, when an attendee asked about Bridenstine’s comments.

NASA is just starting to identify specific landing sites for Artemis missions. “We’re working through what that process looks like,” said Jake Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division. That process, he said, will involve “community engagement” with scientists.

While NASA envisions ultimately building up an “Artemis Base Camp,” or sustained presence in one location, agency officials said at the meeting there’s no decision yet on whether the second human landing mission, Artemis 4, would go to the same location as Artemis 3. “We’re really going to need to see what are capabilities are from the landers, and what locations we can actually get to,” Bleacher said. He added there’s also “no clarity” on long after Artemis 3 the Artemis 4 mission would take place.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...