A flotilla of lunar missions
13 July 2000Day 3 of the ICEUM conferenceThey bear evocative names: 'Lunar-A', 'Selene', 'MoonRaker', 'LunarSat' or 'IceBreaker'. Together they illustrate the enormous attraction of Earth's natural satellite. After SMART-1, all these lunar projects were presented on the third day of 4th International Conference on Exploration and Utilisation of the Moon (ICEUM4).
The Moon has a very special cultural significance in Japan. One of the country's TV channels recently aired, at peak time, a 90-minute documentary on lunar exploration. Japan is currently working on two missions: Lunar-A and Selene.
Lunar-A will carry seismometers, five times more sensitive than the four Apollo seismometers. Two penetrators will dive into the lunar crust to measure the size of the Moon's core, believed to be some 400 km in diameter. This ambitious mission is due to be launched early in 2003.
Selene-A, for its part, has been described as the "Rolls-Royce of all lunar missions". Its main orbiter, with two sub-satellites, has no fewer than 14 different science instruments! These will study elemental abundance, mineral composition, topography and geological structure, gravity and magnetic fields, lunar environment - and for good measure, the Earth's ionosphere! Selene, whose precise configuration is to be decided soon, is due to be launched in 2004 and is a revised version of a project which originally also included a lander. A Selene-B mission with a soft-lander is being studied.
ESA's SMART-1 will be leading the way for Lunar-A providing data to decide the point on the Moon the Japanese penetrators will target. Scientists on the Selene-A mission will be exchanging their X-ray data with Manuel Grande, Principal Investigator for the SMART-1 D-CIXS instrument. Further co-operation between European and Japanese missions is being investigated.
In 2005 it could be MoonRaker's turn to head for the Moon. Currently proposed by the Lunar and Planetary Society as a NASA 'Discovery programme' mission, it foresees a lander with a return vehicle. MoonRaker's two robotic arms will excavate its landing site in the South Pole Aitken Basin, a point to be determined with the help of Smart-1 and Selene imagery. Several thousand minute fragments of rock - approx. 1 kg - will be scraped up and brought back to Earth for analysis.
The LunarSat project has also had ambitious objectives, but of a different nature. The project conceived in 1996, and led by the Astronautics Division of the University of Munich, has mobilised 130 young and not-so young graduates from 20 European countries. Designing Europe's first ever inter-planetary micro-satellite, they have demonstrated their technical innovation and managerial imagination, yet have failed to obtain the necessary institutional backing and funding, some 15 Million Euro - if the students build the spacecraft themselves. LunarSat's Project leader is convinced that the project has greatly benefited all its participants but is understandably somewhat dispirited: "Anyone here with a fat check book?"
Commercial questions are also a prime consideration for LunaCorp. Together with the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Melon University, it is taking a radically different approach to lunar exploration with a commercial and scientific mission - costing some 130 M$ - and is advertising direct public involvement. Allowing people, for instance to drive the 'IceBreaker Rover' on the lunar surface and offering lunar landscapes on practically real-time HDTV and the Internet. Robot campaign trials have taken place in Antarctica and in Chile, and the project envisages - sponsors permitting - a late 2003 launch.
The 'IceBreaker' vehicle is in a larger class of lunar rovers. At the other extreme, ESA's Automation and Robotics Section presented the concept of "pico-rovers" (less than 1 kg each, with single narrowly specialised functions) that could in swarms of 50 at a time explore the surface of the Moon or other planets.
With all these lunar spacecraft, landers, and rovers ready to explore, our Moon had better behave herself. But every mission, everyone has promised, will treat her gently because she has a lot to offer!