Amid a renewed burst of global space agendas, Asian spacefarers are racing to the moon. It seems everyone wants to ensure their piece of the lunar pie. Asian giants Japan, China and India are engaging in a race to map lunar resources and put dibs on the moon as a platform to eventually explore the planets beyond.
Japan may have sparked the Asian lunar race on September 14 when it successfully launched its first lunar orbiter. China will now launch its own moon probe before the end of the year, followed by India in the first half of 2008.
JAXA, as the Japanese space agency is known, will carry out more robotic missions before sending their own astronauts to the moon, said agency president, Keiji Tachikawa, in a brief interview Monday.
Missions to the moon and to and international cooperation topped the agenda of a five-day global conference held recently in Hyderabad, India that brought together 2,000 space professionals, including scientists, astronomers and astronauts.
"There is a great revival of interest in exploring various planets," said Sun Laiyan, head of the China National Space Administration.
China's Chang'e 1 lunar probe is being transported to the launch site and "if everything goes fine, will be launched by the end of the year," said Sun, adding that China will be considering their own manned moon mission if all goes well.
India's Chandrayaan 1 lunar probe will be launched in March or April 2008, said B.N. Suresh, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram. Preparatory work is in "full swing" at the Sriharikota space station in southern India, where the craft is being assembled, the launch vehicle readied and antennae installed to receive data from the moon, Suresh revealed.
Also in 2008, India will likely choose the target year for a human spaceflight to the moon, confirmed G. Madhavan Nair, head of the Indian Space Research Organisation.
Although mankind has had more than four decades of lunar missions, space scientists are still lacking basic knowledge about the moon's origin, the minerals it contains and even whether or not it holds water that could support human life.
"There is a lot more known about the moon, but even after the current round of lunar missions, you will still have more questions," said Indian scientist U.R. Rao, who did pioneering work on space launch vehicles.
Mineral samples from the moon contained abundant quantities of helium 3, a variant of the gas used in lasers and refrigerators as well as to blow up balloons. Space experts believe it could offer a solution to the earth's energy shortages.
Technology for converting helium 3 to energy is still largely unexplored, but spacefaring nations are already talking about a permanent human presence on the moon where resources can be identified and studied. Nations are also increasingly looking beyond lunar missions to and other distant worlds.
NASA aims to put a man on by 2037, Michael Griffin, the administrator of the US space agency, indicated earlier this week, saying the orbital international space station targeted for completion by 2010 would provide a "toehold in space" for travel first to the moon and then Mars.
Japan's 55-billion-yen (478 million-dollar) Kaguya is the largest moon explorer since the US Apollo missions back in the 1970s after six human landings—the only time mankind visited another world. But the vision and purpose of space explorations has changed dramatically since then. Several renowned astrophycists have called on mankind to seriously consider colonizing space as a means of preventing extinction.
"The moon is no longer a place for us to visit," said JAXA's Tachikawa. "We should consider inhabiting and exploiting it."
While many agree with Tachikawa, humanity is still a "couple of generations away" from tapping viable commercial opportunities in outer space, including the moon, believes Franco Bonacina, spokesman for the European Space Agency.
"But we need to go back to the moon to go even farther," he said. "The moon is a harbor -- a kind of spare wheel -- from where we can push to Mars."
In the scramble to reach the moon, spacefarers risk duplication of effort, pointed out Indian scientist Rao, who called for cooperation between the world's space agencies to avoid that.
"Everyone doing the same work would be a waste of resources."
Rao is right, but as recently highlighted by the Russian underwater Arctic flag-planting debacle, humans tend to want to get there first to stake things off and make a claim to the coveted land in question—be it on Earth or beyond.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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