The MOON : Part 4

Short History of Lunar Exploration

Many space missions have visited the Moon. The first lunar journey happened on 13th September 1959, when the Soviet spacecraft Luna 2 took photographs of the lunar unseen face. Further exploration quickly followed. Between 1964 and 1965, started the first American unmanned missions were several Ranger spacecraft that took series of images on approach before deliberately crashing at high velocity. Next, the Russians soon countered. After several successive failed Luna missions they were then successful with the first soft landing of Luna 9 on 6th December 1966. Within five months, the Americans responded again with the Surveyor spacecraft series. Between June 1966 and January 1968, all but one of seven missions landed on the surface and took panoramic images of the lunar terrain. These last attempts were very important for the manned Apollo program, mainly to test the nature of the lunar surface for human visitation. This eventually brought twelve astronauts on six different lunar expeditions between 1969 and 1972 to various carefully selected sites on the lunar surface.

First landing was Apollo 11 on the 21st July 1969, with the first step on this unexplored world taken by Neil Armstrong. This single event continues to be seen as one of the best technological and exploration achievements of mankind and will remain an historical face not forgotten for many generations to come. In the public mind, these manned missions continue to hold the spotlight, but three Soviet Luna robotic spacecraft also went to the Moon during the same time as the Apollo missions. Perhaps the best one was Luna 17, probably as it was the most inventive. For the first time used a remotely controlled rover with a mobile laboratory to sample the environment and it travelled more than ten kilometres. Although the Soviets had failed in getting cosmonauts on the Moon, the attempt showed the future of exploration of the Solar System without having the real possibility of losing human life in space. Three other Soviet slightly different unmanned missions of the Luna series also returned samples of moon rock between 1970 and 1976. In all, nine visits have brought back many hundreds of kilograms of material from the lunar surface for chemical and geological investigation on Earth. This significant legacy is at high cost - but it has has given us better knowledge about the moon and its formation.

A period of time has passed where no exploration occurred. In the mid-1990s both Japanese and American have begun to continue to explore the Moon. The Clementine spacecraft in 1994 took large numbers of photographs of the surface in high resolution, discovering new facts about the lunar surfaces. Lunar photographs were taken of the poles — regions little known until recent years. It is believed that some of the far northern craters never see the sunlight and it is possible the moon may contain ice within the polar crater walls.

The 21st Century may see people returning to the Moon, except the next time it maybe for colonisation and mineral exploration — by countering the Earth’s dwindling resources. It is likely that the Moon will become the next stepping stone for Man to land on the planet Mars in the next few decades.

Both the Japanese and Americans were jointly to resume lunar exploration in 1994 with the Clementine spacecraft. This mission took large numbers of high-resolution photographs, discovering new knowledge about the nature of the lunar surface. For example, it was the first time we had lunar photographs of the poles — regions we knew little about. A few scientists in the 1980s believed several craters at the lunar poles never see sunlight. This left the possibility of finding lunar ice within the craters — something very useful for future manned lunar exploration. Recently in October 2006, NASA has said current evidence shows that this now seems quite unlikely, but has decided to instead see if any water ice is contained below the lunar surface. Another of the more recent mission in 2006 was the European Space Agency (ESA) craft SMART-1, and looked for new evidence of the geological history of the lunar surface. The spacecraft orbited the Moon at very low altitude by imaging the surface as it went. Eventually SMART-1 was placed into a decaying orbit, and on 3rd September 2006, was deliberately crashed.

Future Lunar Exploration

In the 21st Century, there is renewed interest in going back to the Moon. NASA already is in the final preparations for its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008. Currently planned for launch in 2012 is the German backed Lunar Exploration Orbiter. Other future dedicated missions will include several dedicated lunar rovers to explore the lunar surface.

US President George W. Bush with NASA has also announced on 4th December 2006 a new round of human exploration, which should see by 2020 people returning to the Moon. This will be a multi-national program under the so-called Global Exploration Strategy. At present, thirteen separate countries will contribute resources and expertise from their space agencies for these future missions. This time it will not be just to visit but boldly aims to establish a permanent base for human habitation and to do necessary mineral exploration, possibly to help counter the slow dwindling resources of Earth. Planned missions will have four astronauts landing on the surface, lasting at first seven days, but later bolstered to 180 days with the completion and establishment of the small lunar habitat. These manned missions will be well after the retirement of the ageing Space Shuttles, using newer and more efficient technologies in spacecraft larger, but surprisingly similar, to the older Apollo missions now more than forty years ago. Project Constellation will comprise two main hardware components.

Ares V will be the cargo or crew launcher using conventional rocketry to lift astronauts into Earth orbit and to the International Space Station, which will likely begin in 2015. This will be the main American launch vehicle for the next few decades, configured slightly differently for different payloads also to launch various types of satellites in space.

Orion is the exploration spacecraft, whose selected name was to represent one of the brightest constellations in the sky and will be able to launch six astronauts into earth orbit. For the moon missions four crew will travel in a slightly modified Orion spacecraft. The remaining cabin space being reorganised for additional equipment and sufficient life support for the longer journey.

From there, they will transfer to another vehicle to take them to the Moon. Already the whole program is suffering problems with the budget costs, so the mission goals may take much longer to achieve. It is highly likely that the Moon will become the next stepping stone for the even greater space mission of landing people on the planet Mars within the next few decades.

Last Update : 10th October 2012

Southern Astronomical Delights © (2012)

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