Saturday, 15 November 2008

Fly me (beyond) the Moon

Most fledgling space-faring nations seem to be clambering over each other to get to the Moon -- India launched its first lunar orbitor Chandrayaan-1 last month (which has just impacted a probe bearing the Indian flag on the surface). China plans a Moon buggy by 2012 after successfully launching a Moon orbitor Change'1 last year, and Japanese scientists are finally publishing some of their results from the SELENE craft that blasted off in 2007. And yet the US seems to be looking beyond it.

This week the Planetary Society -- a US non-governmental non-profit organisation -- published a roadmap for the new administration and Congress entitled Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Exploration in the 21st Century.

The report states the US should focus on a manned mission to Mars as well the first human voyage to a near-Earth asteroid. The Moon isn't completely ignored; the Society says any future manned lunar mission should be "teaming with, not competing against" other international space agencies.

Devoting resources to Mars probably goes against what President Bush announced in 2004 when he said NASA would send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. A date NASA administrator Michael Griffin reiterated in September at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Glasgow. Griffin also said at the IAC that a lunar base on the Moon would be a launchpad for a potential trip to Mars by 2050 (or maybe for NASA's 100th birthday in 2058).

When I spoke to Louis Friedman, one of the founding members of the society and the current executive director, he said that Griffin had overstated how much was needed to be done on the Moon "some lunar missions may be necessary before human missions to Mars, but not a permanent base," he said.

The aspect that interests me is the question of international co-operation in a lunar base. One wonders how much lunar human exploration is driven by politics rather than hard science. Many people say robotic landers/rovers are more feasible in terms of economics and the science they can accomplish. The successful Phoenix Mars lander, which finished its work last month, being an example of this.

Will other space agencies be interested in international co-operation? Currently there is differing levels of co-operation in lunar missions. India is flying five scientific payloads from other space agencies on Chandrayaan-1, whereas China's Change'-1 lunar orbitor has no international payloads.

Friedman believes all space agencies will co-operate in an international lunar base. Currently NASA does have a proposal for robotic moon landers to be internationally funded and launched in 2015. But when it comes to issues that are more political than scientific, one wonders how far international co-operation can go.

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