We Are Entering A New Era of Space Exploration

The moon is going to get crowded over the next few decades.  According to announced plans the major space players (U.S., Russia, and ESA) are all planning lunar missions.   However, what is really new is the increasing space exploration interests of Asia countries (Japan, China, and India) and the potential of private firms entering the space race to establish lunar bases.

Asia Activity.  At present, there are three spacecraft orbiting the Moon…and all of them are Asian: Japan’s Kaguya, China's Chang’e-1, and India’s Chandrayaan 1

  • Japan's Kaguya (in orbit since October 2007) has since finished much of its main work, which included studying the moon's gravitational field and extensive image mapping..  Presently, Kayuga is on its extended mission. 
  • China’s Chang’e -1, (in orbit since November 2007) seems to have completed mapping the lunar surface.  Chang’e 2 will be launched in 2011.  Eventually, Chang'e-3 is will bring back samples of the Moon to Earth.
  • India’s Chandrayaan-1 (in orbit since November 8, this year) is carrying eleven payloads; five pieces of equipment from ISRO and six from abroad, including that of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).  This is India's first unmanned spacecraft to orbit the moon.  The mission is scheduled to last two years, prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the moon and prospect the lunar surface for natural resources, including uranium, according to the Indian Space Research Organization.  The moon mission, in addition to demonstrating technological capacity, can potentially yield commercial gains for India's space program.  More on the mission here:  http://www.isro.org/Chandrayaan/htmls/home.htm   

Private Activity.   The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a $30 million international competition to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth.  Teams must be at least 90% privately funded and must be registered to compete by December 31, 2010.  The first team to land on the Moon and complete the mission objectives will be awarded $20 million; the full first prize is available until December 31, 2012.

Why all the interest in the moon?   One big reason is that the moon can be a critical resource for the Earth, being composed of some of the most important elements: 42% oxygen, 13% iron, 21% silicon plus others.  Another reason is that the moon can serve as an excellent base to launch future missions to other planets, including Mars.  

Eventually, this will all lead to some emerging business opportunities for private firms, including space travel for consumers.

For more on the moon….