Continuing with our Summer Reading Series of articles or interviews that still have some relevance today, we present Craig Covault’s June 2013 article The New Race for the Moon from Space Quarterly Magazine.
The New Race for the Moon
The rise of China, rapidly accelerating technology, the increasing pace of lunar discoveries and the growing viability of lunar mining are drawing multiple countries and companies into development of new missions to the Moon.
As many as 12 robotic lunar missions including orbiters, rovers and sample return missions are to be launched between now and 2020.
The U. S., China, India and Russia all plan missions during this period while new players eying post 2020 Moon missions include the United Kingdom, the European Space Agency (ESA) and even South Korea.
Those giving serious study to the launch of manned Moon missions by 2025-2030 are China, Japan, India, and Russia.
As many as 3 of the Moon missions by mid decade could be commercial rovers spawned by the Google Lunar X Prize with $30 million in prize money divided between winners for successful lunar roving before the end of 2015.
These new flights have the makings of a new Moon race, actually four, including one race for commercial exploitation and three geopolitical races– China versus India; China versus Russia and one unspoken goal by both China and Russia.
That being, for especially China, to land humans on the Moon to show the world that it has drawn parallel or surpassed the U. S. in technological might, and the will to lead the world where the U. S. once did.
By late 2013 or early 2014 China will launch the first attempt in 37 years to achieve a robotic Moon landing. Its Chang’e 3 lander is also carrying the first lunar rover sent to the Moon in 40 years.
The last Moon lander was the Soviet Luna 24 sample return spacecraft that launched and returned to Earth in 1976. The most recent rover was the bathtub sized Soviet Lunokhod 2 that landed on the Moon in mid-January, 1973.
The U. S. will also launch a Moon mission in 2013, the NASA Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), a lunar orbiting spacecraft with its own set of firsts.
Developed by the NASA Ames Research Center, LADEE will be the first mission to capture then perform an on- board analysis of suspected Moon dust suspended in the tenuous lunar atmosphere. It will also be the first Moon mission launched from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Va.. Liftoff is tentatively planned for Sept. 5 on an Orbital Sciences Minotaur 5 rocket.
This will be NASA’s fourth lunar mission since 2009.
After LADEE, NASA hopes in 2018 to launch the initial node of the International Lunar Network by placing heat flow and seismometer instruments on the lunar backside linked to Earth with a relay satellite.
China has well funded lunar plan. It began in 2007 with the Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter and continued in 2010 with the much higher resolution Chang’e 2 spacecraft.
A year before second Chinese lunar orbiter was launched NASA launched the 4,069 lb. (1,846 kg.) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter the most powerful and prolific lunar science and exploration mission since the Apollo program.
“We are up to 408 terra bits of data…an enormous resource of data from all of LRO’s instruments,” said John Keller, LRO Project Scientist.
Among this data is a detailed topographic map of virtually the entire Moon at an unprecedented scale, data critical for eventual exploration of the entire surface in the centuries ahead.
All of this extremely detailed lunar surface information is freely available to any person or group, (like the commercial X-Prize ventures) or country such as China if it desires to use LRO data to scout out the Chang’e 3 landing site at Sinus Iridum on the northwest corner of the Imbrium basin.
“NASA’s policy is to make data publicly available. I think that is a very noble policy. I do not see anything wrong with it,” said says Dr. Richard R. Vondrak, Deputy Director of the NASA Solar System Exploration Division and LRO Deputy Project Scientist.
“Some people may say that we should restrict the data, but frankly that’s not the way NASA operates. The goal here is to do more than just supply NASA people. The goal here is to understand the Moon and the Earth Moon system,” Vondrak told Space Quarterly. “The more researchers who are using the LRO data the more progress we are make toward understanding the moon as our nearest neighbor in space,” he said.
“China has not requested any LRO observations for site selection for the Chang’e 3 lander, and we are not assisting them in any way. All LRO data is available to anyone through the Planetary Data System, but I don’t know how much of it China has downloaded,” said Vondrak.
“The LRO data set includes Narrow Angle Camera observations of Sinus Iridum that generally have a resolution of 19.6 in. /pixel (50 cm/pixel).
Although LRO data remains unrestricted there is other evidence that NASA is worried about such data transfer to China.
NASA recently removed at least four major photographic atlases of the Moon from the NASA Technical Reports Server. The large volumes document the thousands of images taken by Boeing Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in the 1960s to map the Moon at close range to find Apollo landing sites and to gain a better understanding of the body.
China’s Chang’e 3 rover mission marks the start of an extremely ambitious and highly technical Chinese program of lunar surface exploration first by rovers then sample return spacecraft.
Detailed images of the lander during assembly in Shanghai show it to be a design similar to and roughly 40% the size and mass of the NASA Apollo Lunar Module descent stage.
According to the Chinese, the descent stage mass is 2,646 lb. (1,200 kg.), but what they don’t say is that this figure must be dry mass before the addition of several thousand pounds of descent engine propellant. The descent engine bell is large, measuring roughly 2 ft. (61 cm.) in diameter.
When launched from Xichang on a Long March 3B in December this year or January 2014, the lander and rover will travel to the Moon attached to a solar array equipped propulsion bus that will fire to insert the three combined elements, the bus, the lander and rover into lunar orbit. The Launch mass of the entire vehicle will be up to 8,377 lb. (3,800 kg.).
According to Chang’e 3 project charts, the lander will hover at 328 ft. (100 m.) for up to 90 sec. to use hazard avoidance sensors and software to move horizontally until it has found a smooth place to land. It will then reinitiate a slow descent to 10 ft. (3 m.) where the large descent engine will be shutdown and the vehicle should drift down in one-sixth gravity to a soft touchdown on its four legs.
The Chang’e 3 lander itself is powered by solar arrays and a plutonium 238 radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) to provide heat during month long lunar nights to enable it to survive for at least one Earth year as a science platform of its own.
According to Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist for the mission, the lander carries its own science payload independent of the rover with instruments including an optical ultraviolet telescope to observe binary stars, active galactic nuclei, and short-period variable stars. Another ultraviolet camera on the lander will observe radiation from the Earth’s ionosphere to monitor the effect of space weather, solar activity on Earth’s geomagnetic field.
Within days of landing the 220 lb. (100 kg.) rover carried piggyback atop the lander will descend to the ground by two ramps.
The rover with six wire mesh wheels is designed to survive at least 3 Earth months — three lunar days and nights. It is equipped with solar arrays and likely small radioisotope heaters. It is also designed to travel up to 6 mi. (10 km.) during it mission under both ground and autonomous control.
Ouyang told a Chinese space gathering last year that the rover’s science instrumentation includes ground penetrating radar to show detailed regolith structure down to 90 ft. (30 m.) and basic lunar crust structures down several hundred meters.
China’s Moon rover like the U. S. Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, has a small extendable arm equipped with an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and also an infrared spectrometer that will be placed atop specific rocks for detailed study. Also like the NASA Mars rovers, the Chinese Moon rover has 2 mast mounted navigation and 2 panoramic cameras along with small engineering cameras placed at critical locations.
Set for 2015 this will be a lander/rover mission identical to Chang’e 3. The two spacecraft are being built in parallel so that Chang’e 4 could be launched as a replacement if the first rover mission fails. And if not, it will be targeted to a different area to explore.
Planned for 2018, Chang’e 5 will be the first robotic sample return attempt since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft did it in 1976. Prototype development is already underway on the system to select 4.6 lb. (2 kg.) of lunar samples as well as high speed Earth reentry materials tests, said Hu Hao, chief designer for the Chang’e 5 mission.
A backup/follow-on sample return mission is also likely to be flown to a different lunar site after 2020.
Chinese manned Moon landing 2025-2030:
China has begun active hardware development of the Long March 9, an 11 million lb. (5 million kg.) thrust Moon rocket with 46% more liftoff thrust than the Apollo Saturn V.
China’s archrival India is also planning to launch a lunar rover by the end of the decade, but dropped an earlier plan to Challenge China on the Moon by 2015, to do a Mars orbiter mission first where China is behind.
Like China, Russia is planning an aggressive new assault on the Moon.
Russia is planning in 2015-2020 two South Polar landers, a South Polar sample return and a large South Polar rover.
If the commercial Google X Prize landers are successful they will begin the first real surface analysis aimed at eventual lunar mining. This in turn will require a whole new field of jurisprudence—a kind of lunar law, say analysts at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, Washington D.C.
Some analysts say the existing legal frameworks involving the Moon are not adequate to oversee complex revenue generating operations on the Moon. Those agreements are the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1979 United Nation’s Moon Agreement, often called the Moon Treaty. Only 15 nations have ratified it, none of them contemplating lunar activity.
Other legal analysts, however, believe the legal aspects of lunar mining need not be that hard and have ample precedent on Earth. “Where explorers go, lawyers follow,” said Babak Shakouri, an expert on international law in a recent Space Review commentary on the legal issues affecting lunar mining and space settlements. “Government and private companies can actually possess what they gain from outer space via mining or processing, just like the legal regime for mining and fishing in the high seas and oceans,” wrote Shakouri.
There are many different lunar mining options. LRO, for example, has mapped very specific locations on the Moon where major deposits of the important mineral Lunar Llmenite can be found. It is a titanium-iron oxide mineral highly enriched in magnesium that scientists believe would be critical in the development of any base on the Moon.
Oxygen can be easily extracted from Lunar Llmenite and it would also be used to fashion building materials for permanent structures. The Earthly version of Llmenite is mined in 13 countries. LRO has also discovered titanium fields on the Moon with concentrations of titanium in lunar ore 10 times higher than on Earth.
Some Lunar X Prize entries are going much farther than others in using their entry to undertake active research on the moon toward later mining type objectives.
To be successful all entries must be able to at least land safely and rove 1,640 ft. (500 m.) returning high definition video while doing it. The first to do that will win the $20 million first prize.
Astrobotic’s 2015 X-Prize mission, ‘Icebreaker’, will do more than just take video and NASA is cooperating extensively with the commercial mission and the company’s follow on plans.
Icebreaker’s managers plan to explore for methane, ammonia, and water at the Moon’s North Pole to obtain ground truth data on information transmitted in 2009 from LRO and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) showing the Moon to be potentially rich with volatile elements around the poles. The Icebreaker Expedition will try on the surface to determine the constituency, concentration, and distribution of such volatiles.
Icebreaker consists of a lander carrying the rover named Polaris with a lunar drill, oven, and instruments for analyzing volatiles.
A planned 2016 mission plans to explore lunar skylights, holes leading to caves beneath the lunar surface, and then additional missions to prospect, characterize, and exploit resources.
Contributed by: Craig Covault has written extensively on Asian space programs and Mars exploration. He has covered 17 Mars missions and visited major space facilities in China and Japan including the Tanegashima and Xichang launch sites, Long March and Shenzhou plants in Beijing and Shanghai and its unmanned mission control center in Xian.