Astronauts will be venturing where no human has gone before when they traverse these “unexplored” parts of the moon, which may hold valuable materials and minerals that help humans set up permanent base and push on to Mars.
“It’s a long way away from the Apollo sites,” NASA scientist Sarah Noble said, describing the zones where an Artemis III crew could land.
“All six Apollo landing sites were in the … near side (of the moon). And now we’re going someplace completely different in ancient geologic terrain.”
The Artemis program aims to return humans to the moon for the long term and eventually pave the way for crewed missions to Mars.
While Artemis II will carry a human crew on a journey around the moon, Artemis III will be the first mission to return humans to the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972.
“Selecting these regions means we are one giant leap closer to returning humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo,” NASA’s Mark Kirasich said in a statement.
“When we do, it will be unlike any mission that’s come before as astronauts venture into dark areas previously unexplored by humans.”
He said it would “lay the groundwork for future long-term stays”.
The 13 potential landing sites
Each of the 13 regions is home to multiple potential landing sites.
All are located within six degrees of latitude of the moon’s south pole and all have intriguing geologic features, according to NASA officials.
NASA scientists and engineers assessed the lunar south pole using data from the agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the moon since 2009, as well as other scientific findings.
The team considered crew safety when evaluating potential landing areas, including accessibility, terrain, lighting and the ability for crews to communicate with Earth.
The 13 possible landing sites will be illuminated by sunlight over the course of the six-and-a-half days planned for the Artemis III surface excursion.
Sunlight is key when considering the return of humans to the moon because it provides a power source and protects astronauts from extreme temperature variations.
The moon’s south pole is of interest because it has never been explored by humans before, and its permanently shadowed regions could harbour resources like ice.
The shadowy regions may not have been touched by sunlight for billions of years.
Artemis III has specific science objectives, like landing close enough to a permanently shadowed region for crews to go on a moonwalk, collect samples and carry out scientific analysis to learn more about the composition, depth and amount of water ice there.
The Artemis team will refine its site selections after conducting conferences and workshops to receive more input about the potential landing sites, as well as consulting with SpaceX to ensure that the company’s Starship lunar lander could touch down there.
Sites will be confirmed once a target launch date has been set for Artemis III.