An Aussie rover on the moon would be a big deal

China's Yutu-2 rover landed on the moon in January 2019. Picture: Shutterstock
China's Yutu-2 rover landed on the moon in January 2019. Picture: Shutterstock

This week, we heard the announcement the Australian Space Agency will fund the building of a rover to go to the moon as part of NASA's Artemis missions and Australia's Moon to Mars initiative.

Despite the first humans walking on the moon in 1969, and the first successful mission to land on the moon, by the Soviet Union's Luna 2, in 1959, landing on the moon, and more so operating a rover on the moon, is a small, elite club.

To date, only the USSR/Russia, the US, China, Israel and India have landed on the moon. A few more, like Japan and Europe, have put satellites in orbit around the moon.

However, despite being only about 384,400km, it is not easy to get successfully to the moon - and land on it.

The USSR had a number of failures along the way. It launched dozens of missions, which mostly ended in failure. In space, that is not always a bad thing - you learn from your mistakes and are able to improve the next time.

India's mission had a medium-landing (a technical term for small crash) and its lander and rover did not work. Israel, while it did not have a rover and only had a lander, also had a hard landing (i.e. crash).

It is hard to land on the moon.

They were still impressive missions, though, and advanced their space programs.

The list of rovers that have worked is even smaller. The USSR had Lunokhod 1 and 2, which were robotic, uncrewed rovers that collected samples.

The US's rovers were part of the Apollo program, specifically Apollos 15, 16 and 17. They were essentially moon buggies that could carry the astronauts, equipment, and samples.

China has had its Yutu and Yutu-2 rovers. In fact, China has the only rover currently operating on the moon. These rovers have also gathered samples.

This is same purpose of the Australian rover. It will be used as part of the Artemis mission, NASA's name for its return to the moon missions. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the sister of Apollo and the goddess of the moon.

The rover will explore the landing site of Artemis, and specifically look for oxygen. Things like oxygen and water are key for the future use of the moon. The goal of getting back to the moon is to use it as an easy stepping stone to Mars. Looking for oxygen or water is key. It isn't just necessary for humans, but is also key to be used as a fuel.

Instead of bring fuel with us, we can create it on the moon and refuel to easily get back to Earth, or go onwards to the moon. It will be a space hub of sorts.

There are lots of missions in the works by many countries, so the race is heating up again.

A rover is not just exciting, it is ambitious and challenging. We will join an exclusive club and will take the Australian space industry to the next level.

  • Brad Tucker is an astrophysicist and cosmologist at Mount Stromlo Observatory and the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU.
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