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Plans to revisit Moon impeded by financial difficulties
by Olga Zakutnyaya
Moscow (Voice of Russia) Jul 23, 2012

File image.

Along with pure science, these plans include significant engineering advances in order to send rovers to the Moon, and return samples from its surface. Yet despite high ambitions, researchers are concerned that reaching out further into the cosmos is still under threat of deteriorating finances.

Opening the series of public lectures at COSPAR was a talk by Professor Jitendra Nath Goswami, the director of India's Physical Research Laboratory, on the unexplored questions of Moon exploration. The Moon is among the most widely discussed subjects at the assembly. While much has been understood thanks to the early Luna and Apollo missions, greater discoveries were made at the turn of the century.

First of all, it turns out that the Moon is "damp", in that it is hiding some amount of water ice, which was confirmed by the LEND neutron telescope onboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Then, high resolution images and spectral data brought back by the new lunar orbiters, such as LRO or Indian Chandrayaan-1, revealed some puzzling surface features that can be attributed either to impacts or to relatively recent internal volcanism. The last option is in stark contrast to the previously implied concept that the Moon has long since been considered "dead".

Another interesting albeit minor detail is that the Moon reflects approximately 10% of the solar wind protons, while it was supposed that all these particles get stuck in the lunar surface.

Since the Moon is one of the Solar system's bodies lacking an atmosphere, these facts are extremely useful for studies of such planets like Mercury or satellites of the gas giants. On the other hand, the Moon also holds invaluable data on the history of the Solar system.

Finally, it is the closest body to the Earth, which makes traveling there much easier than anywhere else in the Solar system, and therefore a good testing ground for many new technologies that can be further employed in other missions.

A good example of one was the European SMART-1 spacecraft that was initially intended for a technological demonstration of ion propulsion capabilities, but also carried several scientific instruments and had performed spectral mapping of the lunar surface.

A place for everyone
It is no wonder that most space powers both "old" and "new" have the Moon in their sights. The next in turn for lift off is NASA's LADEE mission that will test the lunar "atmosphere".

Strictly speaking, the Moon does not have an atmosphere, but it has a very thin surrounding cloud of dust and particles that are both interesting for their properties (the lunar surface is a dust plasma space lab, as the particles can be charged) and the role they play in the Moon's cratering, as well as the possible hazard they can pose to future expeditions.

Another by-task that will be implemented by LADEE is to test long-range laser communication and demonstrate a low-cost lunar mission (as it was in the case of SMART-1).

Sending a rover to the Moon and bringing back a few samples of lunar soil seem to be the task for the next generation of lunar missions prepared by the "new" space powers, who are just entering the field of space research. In 2015-16, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is planning the lander and rover mission to the Moon SELENE-2 (the successor of SELENE-1, mostly known as Kaguya) for in-situ observations, to be followed by most advanced SELENE-X (probably in 2019-20). Scientific payloads for the orbiter, lander, and rover are currently under discussion.

The Indian Chandrayaan-2, which is supposed to be a joint mission with Russian Luna-Resurs, has a mini-rover. Landing is also among the purposes of the recently initiated lunar program of South Korea, which expects to send an orbiter and lander in 2023 and perform sample return in 2030. Then, there are private endeavors to send the rover to the Moon, supported by the Google X Prize.

The eventual aim of these plans is to bring human beings to the Moon, although it is not clear currently what purposes these lunar bases might serve. As long as travel to the Moon remains relatively costly, no resources could be mined and delivered to the Earth. Still, the Moon remains an Eldorado for scientists.

Apart from its own peculiarities, the far side of the Moon is almost completely free from low frequency radio noise, which makes certain kind of radio observations impossible from Earth.

For instance, quite a simple set of antennae can be a good starting point for what might one day be a huge lunar radio array working together with similar Earth facilities, as proposed by the international Farside Explorer Consortium.

For such dreams to come to fruition, one has a lot to study beforehand. For instance, the lunar ionosphere, however thin, should be studied in order to ensure the efficiency of the radio observations from the Moon. Then, a human presence would require a bunch of new light technologies that would enable lunar colonists to live and work, and protect them from space radiation.

The path would not be short. Making an outline for the possible research and development program, Professor Jacques Blamont (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, France) suggested that the actual work on Moon exploration would most likely start after 2020, so that a lunar robotic village will appear by 2030.

During this decade, new technologies, such as inflatable structures, life support systems, and others will be developed, providing a solid basis for a human base in 2030-40. The next step might be Mars, but it is not likely to occur before 2050.

Going beyond the discussions
Despite the plans, researchers are all too aware that it might take much more for the plans to be fulfilled. The process of decision-making has not started yet, and the current financial situation does not favor ambitious planetary projects (clearly seen in NASA's policy of reducing costs and minimizing risks), although more modest missions that serve long-term purposes still have a chance.

The Moon is also in the center of Russian space plans that have undergone serious changes since the failure of Phobos-Grunt. Luna-Glob and Luna-Resurs missions (the latter together with India) are expected to be launched approximately five years from now.

The proponents of Moon exploration point out that these lunar missions are scientifically interesting and technologically challenging, thus giving an opportunity to restore space technologies that were lost during previous decades. By going in line with other space powers, it raises good opportunities for international collaboration. That is supposed to be the only viable way to colonize the Moon.

However, the same problems - lack of strategy and finance - are haunting Russian space research as much as everyone else, even though the situation seems to be slightly improving. Starting a long-term project might be a good boost for science as well as for industry, provided that there is regular funding and a consistent plan. Hopefully, the next few years will bring more clarity.

Source: Voice of Russia

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Russia says no manned moon shots till 2018
Moscow (UPI) Jul 20, 2012
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