Image: China's step-by-step approach to exploring the Moon  /  Credit: China National Space Administration
A step-by-step approach to exploring the Moon is on China’s agenda. The plan includes landing an automated Moon rover and returning lunar samples to Earth by robotic means. Image
By Senior Space Writer
updated 1/2/2007 4:43:31 PM ET 2007-01-02T21:43:31

A renewal of robotic lunar exploration is ready for liftoff in 2007 — and not by the United States. This year, China is set to launch its first lunar orbiter, followed by the summer sendoff of a mega-powerful mooncraft from Japan.

Both nations are kick-starting a barrage of robotic survey ships that shoot for the moon, including lunar missions by India and the United States in 2008.

As global interest in the moon grows, so too does the call for multi-nation collaboration in robotic and future human exploration of Earth’s neighboring natural satellite.

China is wrapping up fabrication next month of Chang’e I to be sent spaceward atop a Long March 3A rocket.

The lunar orbiter design — based on their Dongfanghong III satellite platform — is reportedly headed for an April departure from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province.

According to Chinese news services, once Chang’e I circles Earth for nearly 8 hours, the spacecraft will then depart on its journey, taking 114 hours to reach orbit around the Moon.

While precise specifications about onboard science gear is not widely known, Chinese space planners have explained in broader terms the goals of the mission. The craft will yield 3D images of the moon’s surface, probe the distribution of 14 “usable elements” on the moon, gauge the temperature of the moon, estimate the depth of the lunar crust, as well as study the space environment between Earth and the moon. The lunar orbiter is designed to carry out a one-year mission.

Chang’e I’s price tag has been given by Luan Enjie, chief commander of China’s lunar probe project. According to the People’s Daily Online, Luan has contrasted the lunar probe’s cost of $175.5 million to building 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) of subway.

Chang’e I is China’s first step in a multi-pronged Moon program. Over the next 10 years, Chinese space officials have called for a lunar rover, followed by a lunar sample return mission.

This summer, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency plans to launch that nation’s lunar orbiter via an H-IIA booster.

Dubbed the Selenological and Engineering Explorer, this hefty Moon orbiter is billed by JAXA officials as the largest lunar mission since the Apollo humans-on-the Moon program that ended in 1972.

Tipping the scales at three tons in weight — including two sub-satellites each weighing roughly 110 pounds (50 kilograms) — SELENE is built to gather scientific data about the moon. The SELENE effort consists of a Main Orbiter and the smaller spacecraft that, among duties, can help advance knowledge about the Moon’s gravity field.

JAXA’s Yoshisada Takizawa, SELENE Project Manager, said the orbiter will use the very latest, high performance mission instruments, observing the crater laden Moon via 14 sensors during its one-year mission.

At the Moon, those sensors can reveal the distribution of the elements and minerals on the lunar surface; the surface and sub-surface structure; the gravity field; the remnant of the magnetic field; and the environment of energetic particles and plasma of the Moon.

“By integrated and interdisciplinary scientific research of the data, it will reveal the moon’s elemental composition, internal construction, differences in geographical features on both sides, the transition from the molten state that is assumed to have happened after its birth, and its volcanic history,” Takizawa pointed out on a JAXA Web site.

“Through these research activities, it is hoped we can get closer to the core of the mystery of the origin and evolution of the moon,” Takizawa emphasized.

In sketching out its long-range lunar plans, JAXA envisions a “Deep Space Harbor” at the moon. More lunar exploration and possible use of the moon’s resources are also on the agenda.

“For this reason, it has become more important to understand the distribution of the Moon’s vital resources — like water-ice and minerals, so the data acquired by SELENE will play a key role in the study of exploration of the Moon,” Takizawa said.

In addition, SELENE carries a high-definition television camera. It will take a movie of Earth-rise from the Moon’s horizon for broadcasting on Earth, Takizawa pointed out.

Japan’s space program leaders plan to seek a governmental go-ahead to take significant steps toward the utilization of the Moon. Furthermore, JAXA wants to play a role in the implementation of international lunar initiatives.

The looming liftoffs of non-U.S. robotic lunar spacecraft have not gone unnoticed at NASA.

A Global Exploration Strategy was unveiled last month by Shana Dale, NASA Deputy Administrator, at the 2nd Space Exploration Conference in Houston. Six broad themes redefine the space agency’s view that the moon is “much more than a mere destination,” she noted.

Of those themes, Dale highlighted international collaboration, adding that the strategy “has been a work in progress to which more than 1,000 people from around the world and experts of 14 space agencies have contributed.”

In 2007, NASA will initiate “Cycle 2”, a fine-tuning of the lunar architecture, including potential commercial and international involvement, Dale said. A key focus, she continued, will be hammering out a framework that can guide future international coordination and collaboration efforts.

“As we move forward, we will see many different kinds and levels of cooperation that result from this framework. In some cases, international lunar exploration efforts in the future will coalesce around one single, integrated activity, much like the international space station today,” Dale said. “At other times, space agencies may choose to send independent missions to the moon or conduct independent studies while utilizing shared support services.”

Openness and flexibility
Dale noted that independent robotic missions to the Moon exist today. For example, she said, the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 recently completed its Moon orbiting survey work.

“Japan’s SELENE will be the largest lunar mission since Apollo, and there are other planned lunar exploration missions including ones from China and Russia,” Dale advised, as she spotlighted India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon orbiter that — along with Indian scientific instruments — includes two instruments from Europe and two from the United States.

Meanwhile, work progresses on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, to be launched in October 2008. Dale explained that last November scientists from ESA, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States met at a LRO science meeting.

The potential for cooperation between international lunar missions was discussed, Dale added. Scientists focused on such items as a common coordinate system, standard calibration targets for all lunar missions to observe, telecommunications frequency management, as well as common hardware interfaces to ensure maximum openness and flexibility in the evolving lunar architecture, she said.

“We must maintain and strengthen existing international partnerships and build new ones, to enable a robust space exploration program,” Dale said.

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