International Robotic Rivalry in Space
It has to be some sort of record. At no time over the five decades of sending robot craft into the space have so many spacecraft been on duty at such a variety of far-flung destinations or en route to their targets.
Ballistic buckshot of science gear is now strewn throughout the solar system — and in some cases, like Voyager hardware — have exited our cosmic neighborhood to become an interstellar mission. But the march of time has also meant that more nations have honed the skills and know-how to explore the solar system. For example, Europe has dispatched probes to the Moon, Mars and Venus — and their Rosetta spacecraft is on a 10-year journey to investigate a comet in 2014.
Meanwhile, Japan's Kaguya and China's Chang'e 1 lunar orbiters have each just settled into an aggressive campaign of surveying the Moon. India is set to orbit the Moon in 2008 and the German space agency is also prepping for a future robotic lunar mission as is the United Kingdom.
All this action at the Moon — including the rekindling of Russian and U.S. lunar missions — bodes well for bolder ventures ever-deeper into the solar system by multiple nations. And there are other signals stemming from all this outbound traffic.
Opportunity for Discovery
"The Moon is a great place that we often take for granted and we feel that we know it well enough. This is a grave mistake," said Stephen Mackwell, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.
Mackwell explained that we have barely scraped the surface of what the Moon has to tell us. So why then did the Moon take a backseat -- exploration wise -- given that so much remains to be learned?
"I guess we became rather addicted to our ability to robotically explore the vast distances of our solar system, and we relegated humans to low Earth orbit and below," Mackwell told SPACE.com.
"Mars came to ascendancy as the possible source of living organisms, and we had so many new and exotic places to explore. The further we reached and the closer we looked, the more fascinating these foreign bodies seemed, and we gave up on the Moon," he added.
Now, as more and more lunar imagery and data floods in from Kaguya and Chang'e 1, Mackwell sees a captivating place with "so much opportunity for discovery."
Mackwell said that the relegation of the Moon to the history books all changed when the U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, that's the NASA Moon, Mars and beyond to-do list.
"Suddenly, we were thinking of humans beyond low Earth orbit, and how we would reach out real hands rather than robotic to touch those exotic places," Mackwell pointed out. "And you have to start somewhere...so it makes sense to learn to live off [the] planet in a place close by. Somehow this new vision started people thinking of the Moon again as a place to do science."
That thinking has meant resurfacing and dusting off some old unresolved questions about the Moon, Mackwell continued, bringing them to the fore, such as: How well do we have the cratering record calibrated? Was there really a late heavy bombardment and what caused it? How did the Earth-Moon system really form? Does the Moon have a core? Are there resources on the Moon that would enable human exploration...and is there commercial viability down-line? How about hotels on the Moon?
Making a statement
The number of nations shooting for the Moon is a declaration of sorts.
"A lot of this international activity is clearly about making a statement that they can do it too, and that these countries have come of age technologically in the early part of the 21st century. But one cannot help thinking that there is also the underlying urge to explore the unknown, to open new frontiers. Now the South Koreans and the Canadians are moving forward with their own visions, and the Moon is the logical place to go and test a nation's ability to design, build and test instruments and spacecraft," Mackwell senses.
There is abundant important science to be done, Mackwell continued, regardless of whether it is for science sake or as a precursory activity for eventual human exploration and habitation.
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)