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Sunday, 15 February 2015

The invisible world part 3: The eighth continent

Sometimes our Moon is called 'the eighth continent'*: The Moon is so close to Earth, and so intertwined with Earth, that the two worlds can't truly be considered separate...

Above: Earth and Moon, side by side in space. It's a big cold universe, and event worlds need to stick together in it... Courtesy of ESA.

What can mankind make of our eighth continent?
There're lots of plans for far into the future: Proposals for manned lunar bases abound - it's practically a hobby for lunar scientists - but a lot will depend of getting to know the stores of water ice, rare earth metals, organic compounds, and other resources better. The ideas put forward include solar panel energy farms, robotically built radio telescopes on the far side, adventure tourist expeditions and sample return missions from the poles.

There're less ambitious ideas as well: Space Adventures inc intends to launch a privately funded manned lunar mission, and NASA intends to test its Orion space capsule by doing a loop around the Moon. NASA also plans to give the Moon it's own moon, by capturing a small asteroid and towing it into lunar orbit

Above: NASA's plan to kidnap a space rock. Which may well morph into a Moon landing or something when a new president comes in, but that'd be cool to, it's space! Courtesy of NASA.

We've seen that it's a world worth exploring in its own right. Aside from everything I've mentioned in the last few weeks, there're still many mystery's I don't have time to cover, like the water-altered minerals found by Apollo 16 (very odd at the bone dry equator of the Moon), or the way that cosmic rays hitting organic chemicals in lunar ice produce 'pre-biological' molecules of great complexity. There's still a lot to learn, so, even though you won't be buying a lunar bungalow for a while, in the nearer term we can expect more robotic missions.

Some of the most interesting are the Lunar X-prize missions. The Lunar X-prize is an initiative by Google to encourage interest in lunar exploration: 20 million USD to the first team to land a small robot on the lunar surface, travel 500 meters and send back pictures and video.
This could be a start of a sea change in how we use (or don't use) the Moon. If nothing else it has already inspired a lot of interest in the kind of lunar science and engineering that could be done privately. The Moon was once for mega funded government organisations and right stuff astronauts, but over the last fifteen years space agencies with less staggering budgets and have begun exploring the Moon. Now there are eighteen private teams, with the frontrunners looking to launch in the next eighteen months: 

Above: A quick chat with the teams. Well, I say quick. I don't actually mean it. An hours chat with the teams.... make a cuppa. Courtesy of Google

The Barcelona Moon Team GXLP mission is scheduled to launch aboard a Chinese Long March 2C in June 2015: 

Above: The Barcelona team explain some of their strategy

Moon Express isn't mucking around with the small stuff: As well as being lunar X prize competitors they've signed contract with NASA to sell data from their mission (scheduled to launch in 2015) worth $10,0000,000, and plan to set up lunar radio telescopes by the end of this decade. On June 30, 2011, Moon Express had its first successful test flight of a prototype lunar lander system called the Lander Test Vehicle (LTV), and have been progressing since then:  

Above: A Moon Express lander test.

Bob Richards, the company's founder, doesn't want this lunar landing to be a one-off experience: "The founders of Moon Express believe in the value of the moon and its resources..... In the long term, we're looking to develop, basically, a railway to open up the possibility of lunar resources complementing our economy here on Earth, expanding our economic sphere out to the moon."

Astrobotic are equally ambitious, with a launch date set for their Polaris rover in October 2015, and eyes on the dream of launching a Mars mission in the future. Their Griffin lander is set to launch in 2016, with a rover called 'Andy' from the Carnegie Mellon University aboared - the destination is a lava tube, something that has never been seen up close before. The plan to begin a private 'lunar delivery service' for payloads. 

Above: An Astrobotic flight test

Thornton and representatives for Astrobotic see the X Prize as a way to kick-start a lunar industry.
"We'd be perfectly happy landing on the moon and placing last in the X Prize," Astrobotic funder Thornton said. "That would be fine by us. For us, the big win is to commercially land on the moon, and open up the pathway to the moon." And Astrobotic have put their money where their mouth is by offering to help arrange one rocket launch to carry all the competing missions to the Moon.

At the other end of the spectrum, SpaceIL are a tiny Israeli company, whose Moon shot is as much about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers as landing on the moon itself: "Today, when we look at it, our mission is to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon," Damari said. "Our vision is much, much bigger. It's to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers: 

Above: SpaceIL on the trajectory their mission will take

The won't even be the first private mission to aim at the Moon: The Manfred memorial lunar mission performed a flyby of the Moon earlier this year, and the British mission (called, um, Lunar Mission One because we're British) has achieved its kickstarter funding to begin developing their lander, which will drill into the surface of the Moon looking for clues as to its origin and history.

That doesn't mean the old school space agencies are idle: China has landed its Change 3 mission, consisting of a lunar lander (which doubles as a science station and lunar observatory) and its Yutu rover. NASA has the LRO orbiter, which seems to uncover new answers and more questions about the Moon daily. More missions are planned with China's Change 5 sample return mission making good progress towards launch, and India's Chandryaaan 2 also steaming ahead. ESA is looking to the Moon as well, as a place for co-operative ventures:

Above: ESA's ideas for how our use of the Moon might evolve. It's  place you can have a view of everybody's house. SO that's the French in at least...

What I find most intriguing are a lot of  the small mission proposals - they're varied and sometimes strange. Here're a few that've caught my eye while I wander the net:

The Nanoswarm mission proses using a fleet of cubestats (fist sized minature spacecraft used for low cost missions) to explore the Moon's water, magnetism, space weathering, and magnetic anomalies  .

The Naaki mission plans to study the lunar cratering rate.

There're ideas for miniature landers, and for cubesats diverting sunlight onto the poles to locate ice deposits. There're a lot of ideas, but now there're also lot of people building craft, and booking launches to. The Moon seems to be a place with a future in private exploration: NASA has been running its lunar CATALYST program  - intended to advance and encourage private lunar exploration -for over a year now, and has selected Astrobotic Technology Inc., Masten Space Systems Inc. and Moon Express Inc. to receive technical assistance and support to land cargo on the lunar surface.

Perhaps this is all humanity's next step into the wider solar system. Perhaps not. But it'll be interesting to find out.....

Elsewhere in the universe:

I could hardly not mention this stunning image from this weeks successful SpaceX laucnh, which carried the DSCOVR deep space environment mission into interplanetary space:

Above: This view was taken from the rear of the SpaceX rocket, as it pushes the DSCOVR space platform into it's orbit around the Sun. The rocket seems to be looking back and saying: That's it, I'm out of here... a big black sky awaits me.  Courtesy of space X

Space X also had a good test of their technologies for recovering a spent launch stage, landing within ten meters of their target, with the rocket upright and fully controlled - only stormy weather prevented the rocket being recovered and potentially reused.

Elsewhere on the internet:

Survey of NEO's and meteorites

Martian Moon Phobos has water and water altered minerals?

Planck space telescope constrains cosmic inflation

Sharpest images yet of Titan reveal strange landscape more clearly

* Admittedly it also gets called ' that blasted chunk of shiny c**p by astronomers, when it gets in the way

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