China’s Moon Aspirations
China has reportedly approved a “Phase-4 lunar probe mission,” that would explore the Moon’s South Pole region and “build a basic structure of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).” Missions tied to Phase 4 will occur over the next ten years. In 2019, China became the first country to land a mission on the far side of the moon. And, in 2020 China conducted sampling of lunar material, the first sampling by any country in more than 40 years.
In this sampling, China has reported that the samples contained Helium-3, a stable and non-radioactive isotope that could be used as a fuel in any future nuclear fusion reactors (which have not yet developed) since it would not produce dangerous waste products.
Using moon-based material could prevent the need to move materials for nuclear power from the earth to the moon for lunar and other space missions. While scientists have known that Helium-3 existed on the moon, according to the China state-run Xinhua news agency Chinese researchers have determined important information not released regarding the concentration of Helium-3 and its extraction parameters.
International Space Station (ISS) - Russia Impact
The head of the Russian space agency announced (July 26th) that a “decision has been made” to leave the station after its currently-scheduled expiration date after 2024.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and the west’s Russia sanctions, implicit threats of this decision had been made. There also have been near-term concerns about Russia’s support for keeping the station on its current orbital plane given the sanctions, but Russia will reportedly continue its commitments through 2024. Not only is part of the ISS controlled by Russia, the entire structure depends on a Russia-supported propulsion system. Without it, the ISS cannot maintain its necessary orbital position. The U.S. and other international partners could try and replace Russian capability, but that would take time and necessitate potentially significant investments for a system with, at this point, only a short-term mission.
NASA had previously announced (December 31, 2021) that the Biden Administration "committed to extend ISS operations through 2030." Underpinning that extension, however, was the belief that both Congress and international partners (primarily Russia) would support such an extension.
NASA sent to Congress (January 2022) a "Transition Report" detailing NASA's goals and operational plans for the ISS through 2030 until "de-orbit" of the ISS in 2031 with it splashing down in the "South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA), the area around Point Nemo."
Lunar Mission - Artemis
NASA announced (March 24, 2022) that it plans to seek a second moon lander after awarding in 2021 a $2.9 billion contract to just a single vendor – SpaceX. According to NASA, it is taking this action to maximize NASA’s support for competition and provide redundancy in services.
Final FY 2022 funding language for NASA from the Congress included guidance that NASA seek competition, saying specifically that NASA is urged “to enable a routine cadence of human transportation services to and from the Moon with multiple providers, as practicable …[and]…to deliver a publicly available plan explaining how it will ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition” in the fiscal year 2023 budget request.
SpaceX will be the lander used for at least the first Artemis lunar mission to occur “no earlier than 2025” after NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced last November that the mission will be delayed past the original, 2024 date.
Finalized NASA Funding for FY 2022
The Congress passed final FY 2022 funding for the Federal Government (March 10, 2022) to include a relatively small overall increase to NASA of $770 million, or about 3.3% over the FY 2021 funding level. Science programs within NASA received nearly half of the increase -- $313 million.
White House Space Priorities Framework
The Biden Administration released a Space Priorities Framework (December 2021) ahead of the first Biden Administration meeting of the National Space Council. The Framework includes several policy priorities related to space exploration and research:
Maintain leadership in space exploration and space science;
Protect space-related critical infrastructure and strengthen the security of the U.S. space industrial base;
Invest in the next generation (e.g., STEM education).
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