At 2:51am on Monday, engineers at India’s national spaceport at Sriharikota will blast their Chandrayaan-2 probe into orbit around the Earth. It will be the most ambitious space mission the nation has attempted.
For several days, the 4-tonne spacecraft will be maneuvered above our planet before a final injection burn of its engines will send it hurtling toward its destination: the moon.
Exactly 50 years after the astronauts of Apollo 11 made their historic voyage to the Sea of Tranquillity, Chandrayaan-2 will repeat that journey — though on a slightly different trajectory.
After the robot craft enters lunar orbit, it will gently drop a lander, named Vikram, on to the moon’s surface near its south pole. A robot rover, Pragyan, will then be dispatched and, for the next two weeks, trundle across the local terrain, analyzing the chemical composition of soil and rocks.
However, the Indian spaceship will not be alone on the lunar surface.
China’s Chang’e-4 has been operating flawlessly since it landed on the far side of the moon in January. Its arrival was later followed by the appearance of Beresheet, a probe built by the Israeli non-profit organization SpaceIL. It reached the moon in April, but crash-landed.
SpaceIL has since announced that it intends to have another shot.
At the same time, the US has pledged to set up lunar laboratories in the near future, while Europe and Russia have also revealed plans to launch complex missions. Suddenly, everyone is going to the moon.
But why? What has suddenly made Earth’s main satellite so popular?
After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic mission in July 1969, public and political interest in future human space flight evaporated rapidly. Already bogged down in a vastly expensive war in Vietnam, the US government abandoned its Apollo program.
The decision disappointed scientists, but given that Apollo was costing 4 percent of the US federal budget at the time, the cancelation was not surprising.
Since then there have been only a handful of robot missions to the moon, and human ventures have been restricted to missions in low Earth orbit, with special attention being given to the International Space Station.
However, that focus now appears to be changing to more distant goals.
One reason for this shift is that the moon’s exploitation has simply reached a stage that mirrors past explorations on Earth, European Space Agency Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said.
He sees particular parallels with our conquest of the South Pole.
“The timetable of the exploration of Antarctica mirrors that of the moon in an uncannily close manner,” Parker said. “At the beginning of the century, there was a race to reach the South Pole and then no one went back for 50 years — just like the moon in the 60s. Then we started building bases in Antarctica. We are now approaching that stage with our exploitation of the moon.”
Antarctica was opened up by technological advances — motorized vehicles, air transport, radio, and other developments — that are mirrored in the new sciences of machine learning, sensor technology and robotics.
These promise to transform lunar colonization in one crucially important way: by reducing the need for the continual presence of humans in hostile environments.
“There is a huge cost gap between manned and unmanned missions, and it is increasing all the time,” British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees said. “With each advance in robots and miniaturization there is less need to put a man or woman into space or on to the moon, and that saves money.”