Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Once in a Blue Moon

  Last week was full of interesting Moon news. “Moon Express” has become the first commercial company approved to try to land on the Moon, on the same day that the Chinese Moon Rover, “Jade Rabbit”, said goodbye (tweeting “This time it really is goodnight/ There are still many questions I would like answers to, but I'm the rabbit that has seen the most stars."  on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter), after surviving for more than 18 months longer than its planned 3 month mission.

Blue Moon of December 2009. Credit: Codybird, Wikimedia

To date, just three nations have landed on the Moon. The Jade Rabbit rover, named after the pet rabbit (YuTu) of the Chinese Moon goddess, Change’e, joined over 80 different US and Russian probes on the surface, as well as the remnants of the Apollo missions which saw 10 American men walk on the Moon’s surface in the 1960s and 1970s.

The success of the Chinese rover is exciting enough, but the news from Moon Express could be a signal of the start of a new era of Moon exploration. Moon Express is just one of sixteen groups aiming for the Google Lunar X-Prize. This competition, launched in 2007, calls for a privately funded rover to land on the Moon drive at least 500m and transmit back HD video and images before the end of 2017. The first group to do this can claim a $20m prize, as well as a place in space history.

This week is significant as Moon Express has passed on of the big unknowns in the mission. The Outer Space Treaty, made in 1967, sets out the rules about what National space programmes can and cannot do in space, and also states that the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, requires authorisation and supervision by one of the State Parties to the Treaty. This meant that, unlike the many companies who are now launching into low Earth orbit, governmental permission is needed for any commercially planned Moon landing. This is the first time that permission has been sought, and is would have been a complete unknown who among the various US bodies needed to give permission to the Californian based company.

 In the end a cabal of federal agencies were involved, from the Federal Aviation Authority, NASA of course, and even the White House, taking almost 4 months to assess the application. Permission has been granted for a single mission only, and Moon Express has a launch date scheduled towards the end of 2017 which if it manages to meet will not only win it the X-prize, but also make it the first commercial enterprise to make it into outer space.

 Meanwhile other nations are looking Moonward. Both South and North Korea have stated ambitions to land a robotic mission on the Moon within the next decade, and Russia, ESA, NASA and Japan currently have plans to send people to the Moon. The first of these missions could see Americans return to the Moon in preparation for Mars missions as soon as 2023; development and construction of the new Orion Spacecraft is ongoing at NASA, and the first planned test mission of this deep space vessel will see it go into lunar orbit.

 The Moon is seen as a safe stepping stone to longer missions. A place to learn about how to live and work long term in space just a few days away from Earth rather than the months it would take to get to Mars. Commercially the Moon provides a potential mining resource (especially for high value elements rarely found on Eart), and astronomers like myself are excited about the potential for Moon based observatories, perhaps radio telescopes on the far side of the Moon shielded from the human radio noise.

 After decades of inaction, it seems the time is ripe to return to the Moon.

If you want to see the Moon tonight look for the crescent Moon lingering after sunset in the evening skies; you can see the first full Moon of August (which rises as the Sun sets) on August 18th. The next Blue Moon (defined as a rare second full Moon in single month) will occur on 31st Jan 2018.

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