China has embarked on an ambitious space program – surpassing the United States in orbital launches last year (primarily for satellites), and now landing their own lunar rover on the dark side of the moon, the Chang’e 4. 

The stated purpose of Beijing’s robotic lander is to collect samples and identify what minerals are there. And while the Chang’e 4 is unlikely to find precious metals such as gold, silver or platinum – there may be something up there that could serve as a “lunar fuel station to the stars,” as the South China Morning Post puts it; Helium-3

The primary material on the moon is helium-3, which for now is too expensive to haul back to Earth. In theory, the non-radioactive isotope could be used as fuel for the next generations of spacecraft to explore deeper into space.

Imagine driving from “NYC to LA without gas stations along the way”, said Peter Diamandis, the entrepreneur who founded the XPrize to encourage private spaceships. “If you can get the fuel from space, it reduces the cost.”SCMP

What’s more, if China does find anything else of value on the far side of the moon, mining it would be far easier than an asteroid because of its gravity and proximity to Earth. 

The next step, of course, would be what every fan of author Robert Heinlein has been looking forward to since they were a kid; A moon base. The United States has been debating whether to send a mission back to the moon as soon as possible, or build a lunar base that would take quite a bit longer to orchestrate. 

“The US thinks in presidential terms,” said University of Notre Dame lunar expert Clive Neal. “China thinks in decades.” 

China may be testing its ability for more sophisticated missions, according to Neal of Notre Dame. That poses the question of why China chose its particular landing place, at one of the moon’s oldest and deepest craters.

The answer could be simple, he said. From the far side of the moon, Chinese scientists can see farther into space because Earth’s radio waves can’t get in the way. –SCMP

Nasa’s top administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted in late November that the US would be partnering with two companies to return to the surface of the moon, “sooner than you think!”

We’re going to move towards a day where we commercialize all of low earth orbit to where NASA is one customer of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace,” said Bridenstine, calling the new endeavors a “transformation” of the agency’s culture. “Then we can use NASA resources to do things where there isn’t yet a viable commercial market … We can build the architecture to get to the moon with our international partners.”

“The case we have to make, which is absolutely true, is that the quickest way to get to Mars is to use the moon and to use the Gateway,” he added. “It will reduce risk. It will reduce cost, because anything you can do that ultimately can be tested around the moon is going to lower our cost to go to Mars.” 

In December Nasa announced the “Moon to Mars” program, of which the first step is (you guessed it) – to return to the Moon, where the space agency will commission private companies to deliver small scientific instruments, followed by development of an orbiting “gateway” which will support human missions to the lunar surface – and serve as a base of operations for future missions to Mars and beyond. 

The second phase of missions will confirm that the agency’s capabilities built for humans can perform long duration missions beyond the moon. For those destinations farther into the solar system, including Mars, NASA envisions a deep space transport spacecraft. This spacecraft would be a reusable vehicle that uses electric and chemical propulsion and would be specifically designed for crewed missions to destinations such as Mars. The transport would take crew out to their destination, return them back to the gateway, where it can be serviced and sent out again. The transport would take full advantage of the large volumes and mass that can be launched by the SLS rocket, as well as advanced exploration technologies being developed now and demonstrated on the ground and aboard the International Space Station. –Nasa.gov

The question remains; will China become proud owners of the first gas station in space? 

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