Tue. Sep 17th, 2019

The exploration of the Moon: a new space race?

US President Donald Trump has recently introduced the NASA plans to return to the Moon, this time, supposedly, definitely. Why now, which countries have the capacity, what does it imply and under what premises should that return take place?

If the first space race had only the United States and the former Soviet Union as actors, we are currently attending a new deployment of declarations and missions that, in addition to these two countries (with Russia as heir to the USSR), includes a international body (the European Space Agency), China, India and, surprisingly, Israel. New competitors of a commercial nature they also approach the starting line.

Artemis, the American ambition

The North American Space Agency (NASA) has announced an ambitious program that includes human missions to the lunar surface, a transit station and, in the distant future, Martian exploration. This initiative, baptized as Artemis, includes the arrival of a woman to the surface of our satellite in 2024 and annual missions. The objective is the lunar south pole, where it is thought that there is a considerable amount of ice water, essential for the sustainable development of permanent bases and for the subsequent jump to Mars.

The objectives of Artemis are eminently practical:

  1. Test and demonstrate technologies with a marked commercial content in their development.
  2. Ensure North American leadership, which includes the expansion of economic impact.
  3. Expand the number of business partners.
  4. Serve as inspiration to future generations to guide their careers towards scientific and technological areas.

There are three planned missions. Artemis 1, unmanned, is expected to orbit around the Moon for 10 days in 2020-2021. Artemis 2, already with astronauts on board, will fly over 8 900 km from the surface in 2022-2023. The first human beings will once again trample the lunar surface in 2024 with Artemis 3. Between 2025 and 2028 manned annual launches have been proposed, which would allow the demonstration of different technologies on-site.

NASA estimates that the program would cost between 20,000 and 30,000 million dollars. However, only the new JWST space telescope has exceeded 10 billion, after 10 years of delay. A good dose of realism, well-defined objectives and a lot of patience is necessary in space exploration.

China, Israel, India and Europe

China owns a powerful space program characterized by its consistent long-term vision (absent in the western political swings, especially in the case of Spain) and by a certain opacity (opposite attitude to the ads, sometimes premature, that can be found in the US).

You have already placed two vehicles on the surface of the Moon. The last one, called Yutu 2 ("Jade Rabbit 2") in 2019, with the Chang'e 4 mission. The program foresees the return of samples with Chang'e 5 and 6, and systematic explorations of the South Pole and the necessary technologies for the construction of a base with Chang'e 7 and 8.

Israel, in a private initiative, and india, with Chandrayaan-2 and the Vikram probe, they have tried controlled landings this year. The failures show the immense technological difficulties but also the will of other organisms to access the lunar resources.

North American companies Blue Origins and SpaceX announce missions, while Nasa has selected Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and OrbitBeyond companies to send scientific instruments and technology demonstrators to the Moon in robotic missions.

The European Space Agency He has developed his own exploration program, emphasizing international cooperation. The objectives for the next 10 years include: sample analysis, water characterization of poles and other volatile components, the deployment of geophysical and astronomical instruments, the characterization of the environment, including the effect on biology, and the identification of possible resources

Science, exploitation or prestige?

Given this deployment of missions, it is worth asking what is the true objective of the nations and organizations involved. The lunar exploration can produce crucial scientific information, since we only know in a brief way the mechanism that gave rise to the formation of our satellite, possibly due to the impact with a hypothetical protoplanet of the approximate size of Mars, called Theia.

Nine have been the missions that have brought samples to Earth: the six Apollo, with less than 400 kilos, and three Soviets, with another half kilo. Another 14 locations have been visited by robotic ships. Because the Moon contains more information about the formation and history of the Solar System than Earth itself, its study allows us to go back in time, but it is necessary to expand the areas studied.

Therefore, a systematic, long-term program is indispensable. On the other hand, the sending of human beings is a political decision and, possibly, a robotic exploration would be much more efficient, faster and of much lower risk. This is an evaluation that has not occurred.

The Moon contains various resources of great interest, such as helium-3, a light isotope of two protons and a neutron, which could be used as a source of fusion energy. In any case, the viability of commercial exploitation is yet to be demonstrated and that it is ethically acceptable requires a much broader debate.

Be that as it may, the territorial claims of the various celestial bodies are prohibited by international treaty and, therefore, there are numerous legal problems for commercial exploitation, despite the fact that American Senate gave the green light in 2016

The exploration of the Moon and other bodies of the Solar System It presents great scientific, technological and human challenges. It is also one of the great epics of humanity. It can become a cause for conflict or a lever that reinforces international cooperation. It will be the responsibility of all, politicians, scientists, technologists and citizens, that this fascinating adventure brings out the best in us and is carried out for the benefit of all human beings.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. You can read the original here.

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