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Global space rush targets the moon

<font size="2">NASA may be left in the lunar dust as other nations launch their own moon plans. </font></p>
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NASA may be left in the lunar dust as other nations launch their own moon plans. There is growing moon fever in China, Japan, India and Europe as lunar orbiters and robot lander missions are plotted out. The global attraction to the moon is stirring up the prospect that expeditions from various countries are keen to plant flag and footprint on the barren and foreboding world.

There are rumblinbs that a new vision for NASA is in the making at the White House, one that embraces a human return to the moon as a steppingstone to eventually dispatch a crew to Mars. How a souped-up Apollolike replay from the 1960s is greeted by the U.S. Congress and in the minds of American taxpayers remains to be seen.

At the moment, under the rubric of NASA’s New Frontiers class of spacecraft missions, the United States is now thinking about a robotic lunar “grab, stash and dash” sample return mission to the South Pole-Aitken Basin. If given a go-ahead, that American probe would head moonward in the 2009-2010 time frame. 

But the United States will be far from alone in chalking up lunar mileage. Over the next decade, the moon will act as a magnet, tugging on the talents of lunar explorers from multiple space agencies.

The international character of 21st-century lunar exploration was in evidence at a seminal meeting last month of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group, or ILEWG. Held Nov. 16-22 on the island of Hawaii, the gathering brought together experts from the major spacefaring powers around the globe, as well as other nations and private groups honing their space research skills.

“I think the moon is going to get interesting again, and if not crowded, at least noisy,” said Geoffrey Little, author of the forthcoming book “After Apollo: The Legacy of the Moon Landings.”

For example, Japan is now readying its Lunar-A spacecraft for launch in 2004. That craft is to hurl missilelike impactors down onto the moon’s near side and far side. These instrumented penetrators are equipped to study the size and composition of the moon’s inner makeup, Hitoshi Mizutani, Lunar-A project manager of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, reported at last month’s ILEWG meeting.

Japan’s Selenological and Engineering Explorer, or SELENE, is also being prepped for a 2005 liftoff. It is billed by JAXA as the largest lunar mission since the Apollo program, hauling into moon orbit a bevy of experiments to catalog lunar minerals for eventual resource utilization. Selene will carry high-definition television equipment to view Earthrise from the moon for public outreach education purposes.

A SELENE-B mission is on the books too for the 2009-2010 time frame, involving a lunar rover, telescope and ground-based network of scientific devices.

Then there is India’s Chandrayaan-1, on tap for flight to the moon in 2008. It would inspect the lunar landscape from pole to pole for a projected two years. Indian space officials are also discussing follow-on plans for landing robots on the moon.

The building of China’s first moon-exploration satellite — the Chang’e 1 — appears on schedule.

During a phone hook-up between China and the ILEWG meeting, Ou’yang Ziyuan, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and China’s chief scientist on lunar projects, detailed a three-phase effort spanning the years 2006 through 2015. That multipart agenda consists of orbiting around, landing on, and then rocketing back to Earth samples from the moon.

China’s first lunar mission is to occur around 2006, Ou’yang said. As for a human mission to the moon, the Chinese scientist stated “at least 15 or 20 years after” the third phase of robotic exploration, he told the ILEWG.

Ou’yang said, at present, China does not have any plans to rocket a person to the Moon. However, Luan Enjie, administrator of the China National Space Administration, has suggested a 2020 target date for Chinese taikonauts to set foot on the moon, according to a recent report on China State Television.

Europe is already en route to the moon — although not taking the express lane.

SMART-1 was launched Sept. 27 by the European Space Agency. It is to enter lunar orbit following 15 months of cruise through space. Loaded down with an array of technology, SMART-1 is being nudged outward by ion engine.

That propulsion unit, however, has experienced several “flame-outs.” Ground controllers have been busily working on solutions to solve SMART-1’s engine on/off problems.

Once in orbit around the moon, SMART-1’s array of instruments includes an infrared spectrometer. That device can look for the infrared signature of purported water ice and perhaps of frozen carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. By definition, no direct light falls in the darkened craters thought to contain water ice. However, rays from nearby crater rims, catching the sunshine, may light the ice sufficiently for the infrared spectrometer to detect it, once data from many passes has been collected.

As currently envisaged, one of the main milestones of the ESA Aurora program is a possible human mission to the moon in 2020-2025. “If space is an ocean, then the moon is our nearest island,” notes ESA’s Franco Ongaro, who heads the Aurora effort.

The issue of cold caches of water ice at the moon’s lunar poles remains a hotly debated topic.

Such a resource, if stashed away in darkened craters that never see warming rays of sunlight, would be heralded as lunar treasure. Both the Pentagon’s Clementine spacecraft and NASA’s Lunar Prospector yielded data suggestive to some scientists that deposits of water ice are resident at the moon’s poles. If so, that material could be changed into propellant, oxygen, and water to help sustain a human expedition on the moon.

Interpretation of the Lunar Prospector and Clementine measurements, however, continues to stir up more argument than agreement.

As to actual verification of lunar water ice, there is a straightforward answer, said Wendell Mendell, manager of the Office for Human Exploration Science at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Landing a spacecraft to verify that water is indeed present should be on the agenda, he said.

“The issue of what’s at the lunar poles and what its physical state is … that’s critical to long-term, permanent presence on the moon,” observes Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “We need to know the answer, one way or the other,” he told

Another way to resolve the water ice matter, Spudis suggested, is a lunar orbiter equipped with powerful radar. That equipment could peer down into dark craters and assess the situation, he said.

Territory of strategic value       
“The November ILEWG meeting showed that the moon is now considered a prime objective for future space exploration. The long post-Apollo hiatus is over,” said Paul Lowman, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“Although I would not call this a ‘race to the moon,’ the fact is that Europe, Japan, India and China have formal commitments to lunar missions,” Lowman said. He added that attention has become firmly focused on the moon’s south polar region as an objective.

“The now-confirmed discovery of large hydrogen deposits in the polar regions has changed the moon from a scientifically interesting body to territory of strategic value, comparable to the Persian Gulf oil fields,” Lowman said.

Douglas O’Handley, faculty member in the physics department of Santa Clara University in California, said that a general feeling stemming from ILEWG was that no one saw the moon competing with Mars. “But there was clear unanimity that the moon comes before Mars,” he added.

“In general, there was a gloom about America’s leadership or even treading water. Between the Japanese penetrator and the SELENE missions, it is clear they are headed to the moon. The same thing is true of the Chinese,” O’Handley said. He is a former NASA manager once involved in shaping the space agency’s long-term human space exploration goals.

At the recent ILEWG program, a few observers flagged a clear problem — one that’s part identity crisis, part political tide of the Moon.

“My main impression is that everyone is going to the moon and everyone is doing the same thing,” said APL’s Paul Spudis.

One critical piece of hardware that nobody seems willing to fly moonward is imaging radar. “It’s an obvious experiment with all the debate about the ice at the poles,” he said.

Getting detailed information about the polar deposits, not just from lunar orbit, but also utilizing on-the-spot looks by moon landers, is a must, Spudis said. “This is a key thing we don’t know. Somebody ought to do it.”

In the grand scheme of things, Spudis added, it would be useful if the new spate of moon missions gathered new kinds of data rather than repeating orbital measurements already done or being planned. Moreover, coordination between nations regarding data exchanges, as well as use of common formats of information collected, is desirable.

But as one lunar exploration expert told : “The missions are designed around political considerations rather than science from the ground up.”
Special thanks to Geoffrey Little for sharing his observations of the ILEWG meeting.