After a long hiatus, the Moon is once again becoming the centre of attention for many countries, including Russia, the USA and EU countries. And they are not alone.
Japan, for example, wants to launch its Lunar-A and Selene lunar probes in the spring- summer and summer-autumn of 2005. The latter will orbit the Moon, studying the Earth's only natural satellite in minute detail and formulating soft-landing technologies in safe areas with the help of autonomous navigation.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has also announced plans for exploring the Moon. The 500kg Chandrayaan-1 inter-planetary probe is to be put into lunar orbit primarily because India views the launch as a matter of prestige and a way to highlight the country's impressive space-rocket potential.
In spring, Beijing hosted the first working conference dedicated to a lunar orbital and remote-sensing mission during which the project's working bodies were established and the managers were endorsed. The Chinese lunar mission will be called Project Chang'e after the heroine of a Chinese legend who left the Earth for the Moon. Project Chang'e will symbolise the determination of the People's Republic of China to land on the Moon using modern space technology.
The Chinese project undoubtedly resembles some aspects of the manned Soviet lunar mission that Soviet specialists analysed in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Chinese experts have also made it clear that they want to establish a permanent lunar base, which bears a great similarity to an Antarctic research station, by the mid-2020s.
Beijing's plans have to a certain degree forced the United States' hand into implementing its own lunar programme. In the 1960s, the Moon was a stumbling block for the Soviet Union and the United States in the space race. Instead of obtaining scientific results, manned lunar missions became a matter of national prestige. After winning the race, the US today is in no mood to let any other country relinquish its leading position in the flights to the Moon.
And what about Russia? The Moon has been criss-crossed by Soviet automatic probes. A Soviet spacecraft sent back the first pictures showing the dark side of the Moon, while a Lunnik probe also touched down on the Moon for the first time. Moreover, the Soviets launched their Lunokhod (automatic lunar roving vehicle) in the early 1970s. R&D institutes affiliated to the Russian Academy of Sciences continue to study lunar-rock samples. The last ones were delivered to the USSR in 1976, which marked an end to the Soviet lunar programme. The United States, even though it arrived later than the USSR, had already left the Moon. However, US astronauts did walk on the lunar surface.
In a recent speech, President George Bush announced an ambitious programme to return to the Moon. As soon as the following day, Russian corporate managers, who in the past were involved in the Soviet lunar programme, issued a statement indicating that they were prepared to resume some mothballed projects. For instance, Nikolai Moiseev, first deputy general director of the former Russian Aerospace Agency (now the Federal Space Agency) said that a federal space programme until 2015, which could reflect some of the old initiatives, would be drafted by late 2004.
But what lies behind the resurgent interest in the Moon?
The Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences held a session in 1995, where conference delegates noted that scientists had so far failed to comprehend the Moon's origin and its inner structure. "Any additional information about the origin of the Moon can help us find out more about the Earth's early history," Erik Galimov, full-time member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said. "Human activity and the terrestrial atmosphere have erased all traces of the first 600 million years of our planet's history, but all lunar rock has remained intact since the Moon appeared and it is easy to study. Russia today has everything necessary for this research."
The Moon has a virtually inexhaustible supply of the helium-3 isotope, which is formed on the Sun's surface as a result of thermonuclear reactions and then carried by solar winds all over the Solar System. Planetary atmospheres and magnetic fields keep such isotopes in space, but as the Moon does not have any atmosphere the particles reach its surface without any trouble, depositing helium-3 just about everywhere. Particles of the isotope get stuck inside regolite, the top lunar-rock layer. According to scientists, the Moon has accumulated nearly 500 million tonnes of helium-3 over the millions of years and while the Earth has no more than 500kg of helium-3, 70 kg can be obtained from every square kilometre of the lunar surface. Helium-3 could completely replace crude oil, natural gas, uranium and coal. When incinerated, 1kg of helium-3 generates 19 mWt of energy, which would be enough to light up Moscow for more than six years. About 30 tonnes of helium-3 are needed to provide energy for the entire planet for a year, scientists from the Geo-Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry Institute (Russian Academy of Sciences) claim. It should also be mentioned here that the price of nuclear electricity exceeds helium-3 transportation costs tens of times over.
Transport problems will have to be solved at this new stage of exploring and developing the Moon. The Saturn-V space rocket, which was used in the Apollo program, could place 45-tonne payloads into lunar trajectories. Unfortunately, modern US rockets have a much smaller load-carrying capacity. Unmanned US Space Shuttles are the simplest option. By removing all "smart" computer hardware and software from the Atlantis, the Discovery and the Endeavor, it would become possible to increase their load-carrying capacity (under 25 tonnes) by at least 12 tonnes. If they were overhauled, US Shuttles would be able to carry 100% greater payloads; Russia's Buran (Snow Storm) shuttles could accomplish similar objectives. However, this is only the first stage. The entire space-transport system will have to be restructured completely.
Russian experts have designed a nuclear engine for a reusable lunar cargo vehicle. One craft could deliver a 10 tonne payload to the Moon, which would make it possible to set up a permanent lunar base for 10-20 people. Moreover, these ships could deliver equipment for producing "lunar" oxygen and helium-3. They would also be able to fly back helium-3 batches.
The Moon will evidently be conquered in several stages. Firstly, two multi-purpose rovers should be sent there to choose the best base locations, i.e. lunar poles that contain ice for water and which are illuminated by the Sun round the clock. A lab operated by robots would then land on the Moon and conduct comprehensive research and convert ice into water. The stage would, therefore, be set for astronauts.
All these plans can be implemented within the next 5-10 years, so man might well take another step on the Moon by 2015.