The World Heads to the Moon

The major space-faring nations of the world are heading to the Moon with rovers and crewed expeditions.  China and India are targeting the Moon for mineral and energy  resources to benefit their citizens. NASA has broad objectives, from research to learning how to mount a Mars expedition.

Most nations plan to concentrate their exploration on the Moon’s poles, which offer two valuable near-term esources: near-continuous sunlight for electrical power, and water.In the Moon’s equatorial regions, robots and astronauts face a daunting two-week night that’s colder than liquid nitrogen.It’s difficult to store enough electrical power to hibernate during this long night, much less continue normal operations.(The Apollo expeditions landed just after dawn near the equator and left long before night fell.)

At the poles, the Sun clocks around the horizon and surface units may be eclipsed by local terrain – and lacking power – for only two or three days at time.The deep craters at the poles also are believed to harbor water ice, condensed in the always-dark crater floors from billions of years of comet impacts around the Moon.Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket propellant to refuel spaceships in-situ for their return trip to Earth, which would be a breakthrough in reducing the cost of lunar exploration.If Moon-bound ships did not have to carry their return fuel, they could bring far more cargo and supplies to build the lunar frontier.

The Moon overall has a huge landmass – equal to the combined surface area of North and South America.However, space agencies plan to concentrate their initial efforts on a very small patch of the south pole.  The leading candidate is the rim of Shackleton Crater.Orbital surveys have found a region  on the rim where sunlight for power may be available more than 70% of the time even during the south pole winter.This part of the Shackleton Crater rim is about the size of the National Mall in Washington, DC, from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

The rim of Shackleton Crater is at the center of the illustration, with an orbital photo of the entire crater above and a map of the National Mall in Washington, DC, below.

The rim of Shackleton Crater is at the center of the illustration, with an orbital photo of the entire crater above and a map of the National Mall in Washington, DC, below.

The dark center of the crater shown in the inset photograph is where substantial quantities of water ice are believed to rest.Orbital sensors have confirmed elevated levels of hydrogen atoms;a surface rover with different instruments will be required to determine if these atoms are part of water molecules or remnants of the solar wind.

Another potential south pole site is Malapert Massif, a peak where near-continuous sunlight may be available.  Malapert Massif is located Earthward of the south pole for more reliable radio contact with Earth, but has no nearby deep craters that might provide water ice for the outpost.

In the longer term, the Moon has several economic uses that need to be confirmed by on-site prospecting and recovery experiments.For example, the Moon may be a useful source of helium3 for inertial confinement fusion devices. IEC fusion devices can create medical isotopes with safer, shorter half-lives or produce streams of neutrons on demand for non-destructive testing or detecting landmines.Helium3 also would be a good fuel for clean fusion power generation, when such reactors are developed.

Also in the longer term, the propellants created from lunar water could be exported rather than used on site for refueling spaceships.These propellants, delivered to low Earth orbit (LEO), may become a lower-cost way to propel communications satellites from LEO up to geosynchronous orbit, or to propel Mars-bound astronauts from LEO to the Red Planet.

Another possibility is mining the Moon for rare platinum-group metals.Many rich mining zones on Earth were created by ancient meteor impacts, such as the Sudbury region in Canada.Some of the Moon’s almost infinite number of impact craters were caused by metal-rich asteroids, some of which may have impacted at a low enough speed to escape vaporization.Metal shipments from the Moon to Earth can be captured and slowed down in Earth orbit by tether-equipped way stations;these way stations can then transfer that energy to upward-bound cargoes from Earth.The metal shipments thus have two values:for use in Earth-side manufacturing, and as replacement for rocket fuel needed by cargo heading up from LEO to outbound destinations such as geosynchronous orbit, the Moon and Mars.

NASA and International Space Agencies

Major aerospace companies are expected to spend up to $200 million each preparing to win NASA’s Altair lander contract

NASA’s 2009 budget for lunar exploration and lunar science is $3.2 billion and is projected to hit $7.3 billion by 2012.Today, the space agency and its contractors are designing and prototyping the hardware destined for the U.S. lunar outpost and thus need lunar data immediately to guide their efforts.In addition to data about lunar conditions (topography and soil conditions at potential landing sites, for example), NASA and contractors have devices, coatings and materials that would benefit from early on-the-Moon testing before they are incorporated into habitats and machinery for the lunar base.NASA refers to this activity as the “technology on-ramp” supporting future efforts.

Japan has active lunar program

The Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a high-definition satellite now orbiting the Moon (“Kaguya”) in cooperation with the national broadcast network NHK.Imagery beamed back is copyrighted by both organizations, rather than released into the public domain.

JAXA’s next lunar project is a lunar lander named Selene II, scheduled for 2014 or 2015, potentially followed by a human habitat module that JAXA would like incorporated into NASA’s permanent outpost.(Japan currently is the third largest owner of the International Space Station, after the U.S. and Russia, with several large Japanese modules being added this year.)  Japan would build and deliver the habitat using its own unmanned systems, and trade use of the habitat by the U.S. for occasional Japanese crew clows on NASA lunar expeditions.

JAXA’s overall budget was $1.75 billion in 2008.

China has growing ambitions

The China National Space Agency budget is estimated to be $2 billion, supporting both research satellites like Chang’e-1 now in orbit around the Moon and development of rockets and capsules for a successful human spaceflight program.  The success of Chang’e-1 and the September 2008 spacewalk from the three-person Shenzou 7 orbital capsule have energized the Chinese space program.Officials have announced plans for a robotic lunar lander by the close of 2011, and potentially Chinese “taikonauts” on the Moon by 2020.

India plans lunar rover

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has an $850 million budget devoted to remote sensing satellites and launch vehicle development.The ISRO sent alunar reconnaissance satellite,Chandrayaan-1, into orbit in 2008 carrying both Indian and U.S. instruments.ISRO is cooperating with Russia to develop a lunar lander that is planned for launch by the end of 2011, matching China step-for-step.While India does not yet have a manned space program, various media have predicted that robotic lunar landers will be followed by human missions to the Moon.

Europe is examining cooperation with NASA

The European Space Agency (ESA) has a $3.5 billion budget funding support of the International Space Station, Earth communications and navigation satellites, and science probes.It sent a technology demonstration satellite (Smart 1) into lunar orbit in 2003 that impacted in 2006.Its officials have conducted joint evaluations with NASA on alternative European strategies for lunar activities.

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