It has been nearly 40 years since human exploration of the Solar System ended with the return of Apollo 17 to Earth. Space exploration at that time was overwhelmingly dominated by the competition between the two Great Powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. But we now live in a different era, in which several nations have ambitious plans for their space programs and the Soviet Union is no more.
Here’s how the future of Moon exploration looks from a February 2013 perspective.
The first lunar mission in this coming decade will be NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) orbiter mission in August 2013.
The next lunar mission to fly after LADEE will be the Chinese Chang’e 3 spacecraft, presently aiming for takeoff in October of this year. Chang’e 3 consists of a landing vehicle and a small rover, which can leave the lander and explore the vicinity of the landing site. The last lunar landing was carried out by the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. Chang’e 3 is far more ambitious than even the recent Chang’e 2 mission, which orbited the Moon for a year before departing via the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point for its flyby of the near-Earth asteroid Toutatis earlier this month. I will be in Beijing to cover the Chang’e 3 mission live in my role as a regular commentator on China Central Television.
Hard on the heels of the Chang’e 3 launch will be India’s Chandrayaan 2, which will orbit and land on the Moon. The exact launch date of this mission is not yet firm, but a 2014 launch is expected. Chandrayaan 2 was planned to deploy on the lunar surface, near the lunar south pole, a small Russian-made rover, Luna-Glob 2, also referred to as Luna-Resurs. It is presently doubtful whether the Russian rover will be ready for the Chandrayaan 2 launch. The name of the rover raises three obvious questions. First, “Glob” is not a description of an amorphous or amebic space craft; it is the Russian word for “globe”. Second, this lunar rover is not based on the Soviet-era Lunokhod rover designs of 40 years ago; it is a much more modern and smaller vehicle. And third, what about Luna Glob 1? Read on…
In 2015 we can expect the launch of China’s Chang’e 4 lander and rover. This mission, featuring increased rover autonomy, will extend the technical scope of Chang’e 3. Also in 2015 the Russian Space Agency RKA will launch the Luna-Glob 1 spacecraft into lunar orbit. Originally planned for launch several years ago, this spacecraft was delayed by Russian budgetary constraints. The highlight of the mission as presently planned is the deployment of four penetrators (provided by the Japanese Space Agency JAXA) which will impact the lunar surface at high speed and return data on both the impact deceleration and the seismic activity of the lunar interior. The orbiter will study solar wind interaction with the Moon and the dust environment at orbital altitudes, and also carry a cosmic ray experiment package. The very name of this mission is subject to change: possibly due to financial constraints, it appears that this mission will be divided into two parts, a lander to be launched in 2015 and an orbiter in 2016.
The year 2017 may see the launch of JAXA’s Selene 2, which was planned to include an orbiter, lander, and rover. The orbiter is no longer included in the mission plan, and penetrator probes one considered for the mission also appear to have been omitted. Several press reports have confused Selene 2 with a manned mission, which is categorically nonsense. This mission had been postponed for budgetary reasons, but now appears to be on schedule for a 2017 launch.
Also in 2017 we should expect the launch of China’s Chang’e 5 lander. This very ambitious mission, which will drill 2 meters into the lunar surface, extract a core sample, and return the sample to Earth, requires the availability of a new and larger booster rocket, the Long March 5 (CZ-5). The first flight test of the Long March 5 is expected in 2014.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has under consideration a lunar lander for flight in about 2019, but budgetary debates have left the status of this mission in doubt. Even more dubious are the Russian Luna-Grunt 1 orbiter and lander and the Luna-Grunt 2 lander with surface sample return. The latter would, if budgetary constraints allow, recapture the capabilities of the Luna 15 (?), 16, 20, 23 and 24 lunar sample return attempts of the 1970s, but with wholly new equipment. These missions are tentatively assigned to the 2020-2021 time frame. The “Grunt” here is not a sound effect, but the Russian word for “ground”, as in the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt mission of 2011-12, a vehicle intended to land on and return a surface sample from the Martian moon Phobos. Unfortunately, it ended up exploring a subduction zone off the coast of Chile.