America will go back to the Moon in order to prepare for a trip to Mars in two decades. NASA announced yesterday they plan to resume manned missions to the Moon by 2020 with a view sending to a manned mission to Mars by 2037. NASA administrator Michael Griffin made the claim at the 58th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in the Indian city of Hyderabad. But Griffin stated they would need help from the private sector to make it happen. He said greater private investment in satellite and rocket launches is needed to make such missions commercially feasible. “Space tourism may be the only way out to make space transportation economical,” he said. “[but], we have to evolve a mechanism to train the prospective tourists and ensure their safety”.
America is not alone as at least four other countries are planning moon missions. However, a top Indian scientist warned the same IAC conference we should not colonise the Moon or Mars. Dr MYS Prasad said their resources should be shared for the common good. Prasad, who is an Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO deputy director, said the space community needed to avoid the temptation to mine minerals from Moon or Mars until we create an environmentally friendly base. “The biggest ethical question before the space-faring nations is whether mankind is looking at ‘habitation or colonisation’ of Moon and Mars,” he said. “The construction and occupation of bases should be fundamentally treated as habitations rather than colonies in the conventional sense.”
Griffin's 'back to the moon by 2020' statement is a reiteration of a George W Bush claim in 2004. But with a Mars mission like to cost in excess of $1 trillion, it remains speculative at best without commercial or international support. The arguments for and against colonisation of the Moon are likely to hot up as the Asian countries enter the space race. India and China have plans to launch space probes in the next 12 months and Japan has already launched a spacecraft to the moon.
On 14 September Japan launched its Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE for short) from its Tanegashima Island spaceport off the country’s south coast. Better known by the Japanese by its nickname “Kaguya” (for a mythical princess that visited the Moon) the three ton craft is powered by a Mitsubishi H-IIA rocket, the 3 ton rocket. It will orbit the Earth twice before setting off on a two week trip to the Moon. Expected to arrive in a Moon orbit by 3 October, Selene will map and analyse the satellite’s surface, interior and gravitational field.
China will follow suit when it launches Chang’e 1 before the end of the year. Named for the Chinese goddess of the Moon, it will be the first phase of China’s ambitious lunar program. It will be launched before the end of this year. Chang’e 1 represents the “orbiting” phase of the Chinese program and will be followed by a “landing” phase in 2012 and a “returning” phase in 2017. A fourth “manned” phase remains off the agenda for now.
India will also launch its Chandrayaan-L lunar probe in early 2008. And the US’s traditional space rival Russia should not be discounted either. Although their program has been impoverished since the end of the Soviet Union, in 2006 the Duma (parliament) voted a 33 percent increase for Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency. The will bring its budget, including income from the sale of launch services, to $1.7 billion a year. That is serious money and has given Russia the opportunity to consider returning to the Moon, where no cosmonaut has yet to land. It plans a permanent research base by an ambitious 2012.
But as NASA’s Griffin hinted in his IAC speech, private enterprise will play a large part in all future endeavours. Google have offered $20 million to someone who can send a robotic rover to the moon and beam back a gigabyte of data of the trip. But Google have placed a time limit on the prize in an incentive to speed up the race. It drops to $15 million in 2012 and expires altogether in 2014.
The moon has many attractive properties that would attract private investment but perhaps the most precious of these is Helium 3. Helium 3 is a light isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. This configuration is rare on Earth but is abundant on the Moon. Its value to an energy hungry world is as a fusion power source. Its major advantage is that it is not radioactive. Some scientists estimate there is about 1 million tons of helium 3 on the moon, enough to power the world for thousands of years. Gerald Kulcinski, has grand ambitions for the isotope. The Director of the Fusion Technology Institute (FTI) at the University of Wisconsin said Helium 3 could be a cash crop on the Moon. "Today helium 3 would have a cash value of $4 billion a ton”, he estimates. "When the moon becomes an independent country, it will have something to trade."