Analysis: Asian Moon

E&T ponders whether simultaneous lunar missions by three Asian nations are signs of a new space race or just coincidence.

Next time you look up at the Moon, consider the fact that three spacecraft in orbit around it were designed and built, not in Europe or the US, but in Asia. When India's Chandrayaan-1 slipped into lunar orbit on 8 November, it joined Japan's Kaguya and China's Chang'e-1, launched in September and October 2007, respectively.

This is not to suggest that NASA and the European Space Agency are no longer involved in lunar exploration. Following the US President's call for America to return astronauts to the Moon, there has been significant increase in activity. For example, NASA's next unmanned lunar mission - the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) - is expected to launch in April 2009 on a mission to provide a detailed map of the Moon for future manned missions.

A secondary payload, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, is intended to "excavate the permanently dark floor of one of the Moon's polar craters with two heavy impactors... to test the theory that ancient ice lies buried there".

Meanwhile, the remains of Europe's first Moon probe, SMART-1, lie somewhere on the volcanic plain known as the 'Lake of Excellence', following a successful three-year mission and removal from lunar orbit in September 2006.

However, until LRO arrives, lunar orbit is - in the loosest sense - solely Asian territory. This may come as a surprise to those whose knowledge of national space programmes is gleaned only from the media, but the leading Asian space nations have been active space powers since the 1970s. Japan and China saw their first Earth-orbiting satellites launched within a few months of each other, in February and April 1970, followed by India in April 1975.

The juxtaposition of the current lunar missions has led to speculation regarding an 'Asian space race', a sort of extraterrestrial projection of economic competitiveness, but it is just as likely to be happy coincidence. Japan launched its first lunar orbiter, Hiten, as long ago as 1990. The mothership even injected a tiny sub-satellite, Hagoromo, into lunar orbit before completing its mission and conducting a de-orbit manoeuvre into the crater Furnerius. So if there was such thing as an Asian Moon race, Japan won it years ago.

While China's agenda is almost certainly a political one, its contention is more likely with the West and its aims far greater than orbiting a box of electronics around the Moon. The progress of China's efforts in manned spaceflight - having graduated from first solo-flight to three-man-crew and spacewalk in five years - is impressive, but its published intentions to conduct a space station mission by 2011 suggest a move towards longer-duration flights. From there, as space aficionados delight in saying, "it's only three days to the Moon".

According to Luo Ge, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, the nation has an ambitious lunar exploration programme that will see an automated rover on the Moon by 2012 and a sample return mission in 2017. Putting the manned and unmanned capabilities together, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that China aims to send its first astronauts to the Moon in the same timeframe as America (around 2020).

Indeed, even NASA administrator Mike Griffin has admitted that the next man or woman on the Moon is as likely to be Chinese as American. Although his comments are probably aimed at Congress in the hope of a budget increase, and possibly designed to create an upsurge of national pride among the American public, he is renowned for 'telling it like it is'. So America should be prepared to take second place.

India, meanwhile, has already proposed its own manned spaceflight programme, with an ultimate goal (however unsubstantiated) of landing an Indian on the Moon. This 'talking up' of space capabilities, and the reality of the Chandrayaan-1 mission, comes as no surprise to long-term space watchers, but has caused a degree of unrest in India. Since the nation's first satellite, Aryabhata, was launched in 1975, India has been a staunch defender of its pragmatic stance in space spending. The majority of its space budget has been allocated to communications and remote sensing satellites, which provide services of benefit to its people. Detractors are now asking how, when so many Indians live in poverty, the government can justify sending spacecraft, let alone astronauts, to the Moon.

This attitude is also to be expected, especially in a democracy, as it mirrors a segment of opinion in most of the space-faring nations. However, as India's population becomes more broadly educated and increasingly aspirational, it is equally easy to find those who are proud that their nation is making its mark on the world (and those beyond). Indeed, India's space agency is banking on the views of the new literati holding sway, and is already preparing Chandrayaan-2.

Mark Williamson is a space technology consultant and writer. His book, Spacecraft technology: the early years, was published by the IET in 2006.

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