Armada to set course to the Moon... Feb 13, 2006 12:59:04 GMT -6
Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on Feb 13, 2006 12:59:04 GMT -6
Shooting for the Moon, Once Again
Thirty-four years after the last Apollo astronaut walked on the lunar surface, a new space race is underway.
It will be a long race, with humans unlikely to set foot on the moon again in the next 10 to 15 years. But countries are gearing up to take their first steps.
India's 20,000 space workers are readying a lunar orbital mission set for 2007. Japan plans to send a robotic rover to the lifeless rock by 2013, and the European Space Agency has a probe, SMART-1, orbiting the moon.
Although many countries are talking about sending people to the moon, only two, the United States and China, have set dates for manned lunar landings. NASA says its next manned mission will be as early as 2018; China says it wants to land "taikonauts" — as Chinese astronauts are called — as early as 2017.
"There is a lunar armada" on the way back to the moon, said James B. Garvin, head of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project, scheduled to lift off in 2008.
It's an unlikely renaissance of lunar exploration after decades of sending robots to distant planets while human explorers busied themselves building a space station in low-Earth orbit.
Each country is going for its own reasons — some commercial, some strategic, some for national pride. But if the plans come to fruition, the moon could become a busy extraterrestrial outpost for scientists, engineers and possibly ordinary citizens in the coming decades. It would also serve as a vital way station for man's long-dreamed-of trip to Mars.
Leading the way is the only country that has set foot there before, the United States.
Two years from now, NASA will begin launching probes to search for landing sites and potential water sources at the moon's south pole. Work is underway on new generation lunar projects, including a souped-up rover and a $38-million project to extract breathable oxygen from moon dust.
All this has gotten NASA's workforce, which has been demoralized by the frustrations and tragedies of the ill-fated space shuttle program, fired up in ways it hasn't been since the 1960s.
A few hundred miles above the moon, the European Space Agency's SMART-1 maintains a lonely vigil — the only craft now in lunar orbit.
From 1959 to 1976, the United States and the Soviet Union sent 60 missions to the moon. Then came a long hiatus.
Missions resumed in 1990, first with the Japanese Hiten probe to test space technologies. It was followed by NASA's Clementine in 1994 and Lunar Prospector in 1998, which mapped the rocky surface.
SMART-1, the European Space Agency's first lunar mission, arrived in 2004 to test a new solar-powered ion drive and collect scientific data.
It will soon have plenty of company.
The Japanese are readying Lunar-A and SELENE for launch on missions to survey the moon's geology and topography. Then comes India's $100-million Chandrayaan-1 mission in September 2007. The 1,150-pound craft shaped like a 5-foot cube will orbit the moon's polar regions for two years and make a chemical map of the surface.
China is preparing to launch its Chang'e 1 probe at about the same time to study the lunar environment from orbit. By 2012, China would start work on a spacecraft capable of bringing material back from the moon. A landing by taikonauts would occur after 2017.
China, India and Japan have ambitious strategic goals to develop advanced technologies for military and commercial uses.
Full long story here from the L.A. Times:
Are we going to be witness to another space race?