Return to the moon

      Home » Science & Technology » Return to the moon

Return to the moon

In search of water and minerals on them moon new robots are heading there to map the place first.
For this reason, both NASA and several other countries plan to send a whole suite of robot scouts to the moon over the next few years.

The first, dubbed SMART-1 and built by the European Space Agency, already is in lunar orbit. On Feb. 10, ESA officials announced they were extending SMART-1's lunar mission by one year, to August 2006.

SMART-1 is ESA's first probe to the moon and its first to use an ion engine for propulsion. As such, it took the spacecraft more than a year to travel the relatively short distance from the Earth to its satellite -- a journey that took the Apollo astronauts only three days.

During each orbit, SMART-1 would fire its ion engine, giving it a tiny push outward so its trajectory would spiral slowly away from Earth. After a year of tiny pushes, the spacecraft's orbit finally crossed into the moon's gravitational well last Nov. 15.

Since then, SMART-1 has reversed this process, slowly spiraling inward toward the moon, with an intended arrival by the end of February at its planned polar reconnaissance orbit, ranging from 186 to 1864 miles above the lunar surface.

Once there SMART-1 will begin surveying the moon's entire surface, not only taking the highest resolution pictures ever, but also using two different spectrometers -- one working in X-rays and the other in the infrared range -- to assay the surface make-up, search for evidence of hidden ice and, if possible, map potential landing sites where that ice would be easily accessible.

"SMART-1 is equipped with sensors to peek in the permanent night at the bottom of polar craters," Bernard Foing, ESA's chief scientist and SMART-1 project scientist, told last December.

Later this decade, NASA plans to follow with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Intended to orbit the moon for a year, the spacecraft will carry instruments designed to precisely locate hidden hydrogen -- and therefore water ice -- and thus pinpoint future landing sites.

If confirmed to exist and then accurately mapped, lunar water ice would become an oasis for future lunar explorers, allowing them not only to carry less water, oxygen and fuel from Earth, but also to use those commodities to supply outbound missions.

One established at these secure outposts, astronauts will be able to explore the rest of the lunar surface relatively easily. For these new lunar explorers, all things finally will become possible.

Since the Apollo landings, the majesty of the moon's most mysterious places has been mostly forgotten, replaced with the false impression that -- having sent a half dozen crews to the lunar surface -- we have "been there, done that."

The truth is, we haven't been there or done that. As I wrote in "Leaving Earth," four of the six Apollo landing sites were chosen because of how boring and therefore safe they looked. With all six missions, the dozen Apollo astronauts explored less territory than a New York City cab driver sees in a day's work.

There are as-yet-unvisited places on the moon that are not only scientifically intriguing, but also incredibly beautiful.

Consider as just one example the crater Copernicus, one of the largest and most distinct features on the lunar surface. Pictures taken from orbit show that one could easily stand on the crater's 3,000 foot-high rim and look across its floor, past the cluster of 1,300 foot central peaks, to the far rim some 60 miles away.

Such a view not only would dwarf the Grand Canyon in scale, but also -- with the moon's pitch-black sky and crystal-clear view -- far exceed it in grandeur.

Yet this is only one place. The far side of the moon, for example, has been barely glimpsed by a handful of humans and its detailed mapping has hardly begun.

With SMART-1 in lunar orbit and other robots soon to follow, the stage is set for the permanent return of humans to the Moon in the next decade.
By netchicken: posted on 25-2-2005

Return to the moon | [Login ]
Powered by XMB
Privacy Policy