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Asian spacefarers race for the moon

Technology for converting helium 3 to energy is still far away, but spacefaring nations are already talking about a permanent human presence on the moon and looking beyond to Mars and more distant planets.
by Staff Writers
Hyderabad, India (AFP) Sept 25, 2007
Asian giants Japan, China and India are engaged in a race to map lunar resources and make the moon a platform to explore planets beyond, amid a renewed burst of global space activity.

Japan flagged off the Asian lunar race on September 14 when it successfully launched its first lunar orbiter. China plans to launch its own moon probe before the end of the year, followed by India in the first half of 2008.

"We want to investigate the moon, to know more about the whole of the moon," Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said in this southern Indian city.

JAXA, as the agency is known, will carry out more robotic missions before a landing and astronaut on the moon, said Tachikawa in a brief interview Monday.

Missions to the moon and to Mars and international cooperation top the agenda of a five-day global conference in Hyderabad that brought together 2,000 space professionals, including scientists, astronomers and astronauts.

"There is a great revival of interest in exploring various planets," said Sun Laiyan, head of the China National Space Administration.

China's Chang'e 1 lunar probe is being transported to the launch site and "if everything goes fine, will be launched by the end of the year," said Sun, adding that China will consider a manned moon mission in the future.

India's Chandrayaan 1 lunar probe will be launched in March or April 2008, said B.N. Suresh, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram.

Preparatory work is in "full swing" at the Sriharikota space station in southern India, where the craft is being assembled, the launch vehicle readied and antennae installed to receive data from the moon, Suresh told AFP.

Also in 2008, India will likely choose the target year for a human spaceflight to the moon, said G. Madhavan Nair, head of the Indian Space Research Organisation.

"It will take seven or eight years," Nair said. "We are in the process of sharpening our ideas."

Despite more than four decades of lunar missions, space scientists still lack definitive answers to questions about the moon's origin, the minerals it contains and whether it has water that could support human life.

"There is a lot more known about the moon, but even after the current round of lunar missions, you will still have more questions," said Indian scientist U.R. Rao, who did pioneering work on space launch vehicles.

Mineral samples from the moon contained abundant quantities of helium 3, a variant of the gas used in lasers and refrigerators as well as to blow up balloons, and space experts say that may offer a solution to the earth's energy shortages.

Technology for converting helium 3 to energy is still far away, but spacefaring nations are already talking about a permanent human presence on the moon and looking beyond to Mars and more distant planets.

President George W. Bush in 2004 announced an ambitious plan for the US to return to the moon by 2020 and use it as a stepping stone for manned missions to Mars and beyond.

NASA aims to put a man on Mars by 2037, Michael Griffin, the administrator of the US space agency, indicated here Monday, saying the orbital international space station targeted for completion by 2010 would provide a "toehold in space" for travel first to the moon and then Mars.

Japan's 55-billion-yen (478-million-dollar) Kaguya is the largest moon explorer since the US Apollo missions ceased in the 1970s after six human landings, the only time mankind visited another world.

"The moon is no longer a place for us to visit," said JAXA's Tachikawa. "We should consider inhabiting and exploiting it."

The Kaguya orbiter, aiming to collect data for research on the moon's origin and evolution, will travel around the Earth before moving into an orbit of the moon in early October.

It will gather data on the distribution of chemical elements and minerals and study the moon's gravity and environment while searching for hydrogen.

Still, humanity is a "couple of generations away" from tapping commercial opportunities in outer space, including the moon, said Franco Bonacina, spokesman for the European Space Agency.

"But we need to go back to the moon to go even farther," he said. "The moon is a harbour -- a kind of spare wheel -- from where we can push to Mars."

In the scramble to reach the moon, spacefarers risk duplication of effort, said Indian scientist Rao, who called for cooperation between the world's space agencies to avoid that.

"Everyone doing the same work would be a waste of resources."

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Outside View: China shoots for the moon
Moscow (UPI) Sep 24, 2007
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