Artemis astronauts
NASA is emphasizing the science that astronauts will be able to do on the first Artemis lunar lander missions, but there are questions about how many samples they will be able to return. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — An updated version of a study developed by an international working group backs an approach to lunar exploration that largely follows NASA’s Artemis plans to return humans to the moon in 2024.

The International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a group of 24 space agencies, released an updated version of its “Global Exploration Roadmap” report in August with little fanfare. The document offers what the group called a “a shared international vision for human and robotic space exploration,” although one that is not binding on member agencies.

The new report, an update of a version published in 2018, reflects “new national priorities and intensified and accelerated lunar exploration plans” by member nations announced since that earlier report. While not explicitly stated, that would include the United States, which in March 2019 moved up the date for a human return to the lunar surface by four years, from 2028 to 2024.

“This should be the worldwide common reference for future coordination with stakeholders, such as governments, academia, industries and the public,” said Naoki Sato of the Japanese space agency JAXA, who recently completed a term as chair of ISECG, during an Oct. 28 webinar by the International Astronautical Federation.

The report outlines a scenario for lunar exploration similar to NASA’s plans for the Artemis program with three phases. The first phase, dubbed “Boots on the Moon,” calls for a human return to the moon in 2024, just as NASA is planning. Phase 2 envisions establishing a more permanent, sustainable presence at the lunar south pole, with excursions elsewhere on the moon.

A final phase calls for “a sustained and vibrant lunar presence in the coming decades” including commercial activities. “We don’t know when it will be,” Sato said. “We’d like to encourage industries in the world to achieve a fully developed lunar economy using technologies demonstrated in Phase 1 and 2.”

That approach, particular for the first two phases, closely mirrors NASA’s own plans. The plan doesn’t specify specific roles for individual countries, but does include elements of NASA’s plans, like the lunar Gateway and reusable lunar landers, as well as contributions announced by partner nations, like a large pressurized rover that JAXA has said it will develop.

The first phase would end with the 2024 human lunar landing, but the report was vague about how long the second phase would continue. Phase 2 would begin in 2025, Sato said, “maybe to 2035 or some time, but we don’t know the exact time.”

The report is more specific about the goals of the lunar exploration initiative. It lays out 12 objectives for lunar surface exploration, ranging from demonstrating the ability to safely transport humans to and from the lunar surface to development of lunar surface infrastructure and use of in situ resources. Some goals are particularly specific, such as the requirement to demonstrate rovers that can travel 10,000 kilometers of cumulative mileage across the lunar surface or power systems that can generate 300 kilowatts.

This latest update to the Global Exploration Roadmap comes as the ISECG expands its membership. The group now has 24 agencies, 10 of which have joined since 2018, Sato noted. Those new members include several European national space agencies as well as others in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Australia.

The group’s members also include the China National Space Administration and Roscosmos, two agencies that are either excluded from NASA’s Artemis program or have expressed doubts about participating. Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, said at the International Astronautical Congress in October that it was unlikely Roscosmos would participate in program like the lunar Gateway because they are too “U.S.-centric.”

China is developing its own plans for eventual human missions to the moon, including an “International Lunar Research Station” it would develop at the lunar south pole using first robotic and then crewed missions. The updated Global Exploration Roadmap report doesn’t discuss those initiatives, only including in its mission scenarios future robotic Chang’e lunar lander missions.

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...