China lands on moon, kicks off next lunar space race
China lands on moon, kicks off next lunar space race
Let the modern moon rush begin. China has successfully placed a lander and rover on the lunar surface, the first time any nation has touched down there in almost four decades.
China's first moon landing, which took place on Saturday afternoon (GMT) marks the rekindling of humanity's love affair with our only natural satellite. About a dozen robotic landers and rovers are on the drawing board for launch between now and 2020, many from burgeoning space powers or private ventures that would also be making their first attempts.
This flotilla of 21st-century moon explorers should arrive bristling with technologies that will help them map the moon's uncharted regions and prospect for resources that could one day sustain lunar outposts and missions further afield.
The crew of the final Apollo mission lifted off from the moon's Sea of Serenity on 14 December 1972. After that, three robotic Soviet spacecraft made it to the surface, the final one in 1976. For the next few decades, the moon's only visitors were a dozen or so orbiters and deliberate crashes, such as NASA's LCROSS mission in 2009, which created plumes of dust for analysis by orbiters.
Launched on 2 December, the Chang'e-3 mission touched down on a 1160-kilometre-wide basin known as the Sea of Rains. To make the soft landing, it needed to fire retrorockets to adjust its position, cut off its engine and ultimately drop from a height of 4 metres.
"Hopefully the lander doesn't tilt," said Bernard Foing, director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group, a forum sponsored by multiple space agencies, before the landing. Once on the surface, the lander set free a rover named Yutu – which translates as "Jade Rabbit" – after the mythological pet of lunar goddess Chang'e.
India and South Korea are also in the running to send missions to the moon that would involve combinations of landers and rovers. India could launch its Chandrayaan-2 mission by 2017, while the newly proposed Korean mission won't be lifting off before 2020.
"The moon is the nearest island in space out from the Earth," says Igor Mitrofanov at Russia's Institute for Space Research in Moscow, the project scientist for two planned Russian-led rover missions. As countries develop their space programmes, the moon is a natural first foray beyond Earth that allows remote-controlled robots to get their sea legs while staying within a 10-second call of the planet's shores.
“在宇宙中月球是离地球最近的的岛屿。”Igor Mitrofanov在莫斯科的俄罗斯空间研究局说道。这个项目已计划了两次俄罗斯主导的月球探测任务。当各国开始发展空间项目时，月球自然的成为第一个在地球之外被掠夺的对象（that allows remote-controlled robots to get their sea legs while staying within a 10-second call of the planet's shores.不知什么意思）
But the moon is more than a test bed for space missions. China's Yutu rover will venture a few kilometres away from its landing site to snap images, take stock of minerals with on-board spectrometers and probe below the surface with radar. It could reveal different episodes of volcanism at the site, which is covered with solidified lava.
"To know the origin and evolution of the moon is to know those of Earth," saysTatsuaki Hashimoto of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the lead scientist for a proposed lunar rover called SELENE-2. The moon is thought to have coalesced from the debris of an impact between a Mars-sized world and Earth some 4.5 billion years ago. "It's a part of the Earth," says Foing. "I call it the eighth continent."
“了解月球的起源与演化需要了解它的土壤。”来自日本航空探测局、计划中的SELENE-2月球车的领导科学家Tatsuaki Hashimoto 说道。月球被认为是由45亿年前由火星大小的行星和地球碰撞产生的碎片组成的。“它是地球的一部分，”Foing说，“我称它为第八块大陆。”
Several of the proposed exploration missions are targeting the moon's poles, which have never been visited by a lander. But data from orbiters support the idea that the rocks and shadowed craters at both poles contain millions or even billions of tonnes of water ice. Studying the water's isotopes and any organic material it might hold in deep freeze could shed light on where Earth got its water and the building blocks of life, says Foing.
The damp moon could also be a useful resource for future robotic and human exploration, says Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. Astronauts could drink moon water extracted from its rocks, or use it as radiation shielding.
Water could also be split into hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel. Much of the weight of today's rockets comes from their own propellant, so having a source of fuel already in space would pave the way for much more ambitious human missions.
潮湿的月球在未来也许会是机器人或载人探测的有用的资源，来自德克萨斯州休斯敦月球和行星学会的Paul Spudis 说。宇航员能够喝从岩石中抽取的水或是用来屏蔽辐射。
"If we're really interested in extending our reach to Mars and beyond, we don't want to have to bring fuel with us," says Anthony Colaprete of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. He is the project scientist on a proposed robotic mission called Resource Prospector, which could launch in 2018 to try to extract water from lunar rocks.
“如果我们真的对将步伐延伸到火星及之外很感兴趣的话，我们不会希望不得不同时携带着燃料。”来自位于加州Moffett Field 的美国宇航局Ames 研究中心的Anthony Colaprete 说。他是一项名为资源探测者的计划中的任务的项目科学家。资源探测者将于2018年发射，它能从月球的岩石中提取水分。
Private groups are also hoping to get in on the action. The Google Lunar X Prize is offering $20 million to the first private team that by the end of 2015 launches a lunar spacecraft that can land on the moon, travel 500 metres and send back video. Some of the teams vying for the prize also have their sights set on selling lunar-derived rocket fuel. And a US-based firm called Shackleton Energy Company says it wants to send robots and teams of human miners to the moon to supply water for fuel depots that it would place in Earth orbit.
Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington DC, is sceptical that a private company will be able to raise the money needed to put together such a massive project. Still, he agrees that mining fuel from the moon makes sense, and he notes that most of the world's space agencies, with the exception of the US, want to send astronauts to the moon.
Once again China may be leading the renewed charge, with a potential human mission that could take place after 2025. "I personally believe that this is the beginning of the epoch of the permanent stay of humans on the moon," says Mitrofanov.