Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The New Space Race: China and India

Since 1998 there have been only five missions sent to explore the Moon. Two were  Chinese, one was Japanese, one was Indian, and one was American.


China  Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter
Japan  SELENE lunar orbiter with two small subsatellites.


US      Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and polar ice probe LCROSS
India   Chandrayaan 1 lunar orbiter with international assortment of scientific instruments


China  Chang’e 2 lunar orbiter for mapping

(After 20 months in orbit, SELENE was intentionally crashed into the lunar surface, targeted on the ice deposits found near the lunar poles.)  

The prospect for the American for the next few years has recently changed significantly as a result of the restructuring of NASA’s exploration program to emphasize Mars and asteroids over the Moon.  NASA’s two GRAIL orbiters, devoted to study of the Moon’s gravitational field and interior structure, which are scheduled for launch in 2011, were paid for before this change in policy.  Also, NASA’s LADEE orbital mission to study the Moon’s tenuous atmosphere and dust environment is scheduled for launch in May 2012.  Two lunar missions are presently scheduled for launch in 2013: China’s Chang’e 3 lander and rover, and India’s Chandrayaan 2 orbiter, lander, and rover.  Japan’s SELENE 2 lander with a surface penetrator probe including a seismometer and possibly an autonomous rover is presently scheduled for launch before 2015.

China has targeted 2017 for the launch of an automated (unmanned) lunar surface sample return mission, Chang’e 4.  The European Space Agency (ESA) is planning a lunar polar lander for the 2019 time frame.

Both China and India have announced their intention to land astronauts on the Moon around 2025.  China has released its plans for the development of several new large launch vehicles (Long March 5, 8, and 9), including specific and realistic performance and schedule goals, that would permit carrying out such an ambitious program.  India has so far demonstrated its commitment to a series of unmanned precursor missions that pave the way for eventual manned lunar landings, but has not announced any plans for the development of the necessary giant rocket boosters.

So far, it looks as though India has a goal and China has a plan.  The cost of such a program is immense; indeed, budgetary constraints, not lack of technical capability, have kept Japan on the sidelines in this new space race.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must mention that I have served as a regular commentator on China Central Television (CCTV-9) since 2005, including lunar missions in the Chang’e program and manned missions in the Shenzhou series.  My role has been to contribute an independent international and historical perspective.  I have given a lecture series at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Center for Space Science and Applied Research and its Center for Lunar Missions.  I have not advised China on what to do or how to do it.


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