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Let's land on moon...

Scientists say inter-planetary research missions from the Earth are too expensive because of Earth?s gravitational pull, reports Jatin Gandhi.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2006 02:30 IST

For every power cut in a metro today, the government blames high demand and short supply. Fast forward to 2026. A sudden power cut in Delhi leaves a whole new generation of school children stunned.

Things have changed, they have never heard of electricity shortage before.

The government beams a statement asking residents not to panic: Helium 3 is abundant and more supply from the moon is on its way.

The lunar fuel supply outpost on the moon has made arrangements to ensure a shortage-free summer. But, on the other hand, the treaty on sharing resources of the moon with China remains unsigned. The two superpowers disagree on the terms.

Welcome to the new reality. The moon is not just a future destination for honeymooners and scientists but also a rich source of fuels, minerals and even land. It will also serve as a base station for inter-planetary exploration.

With the success of the first phase of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) moon mission SMART 1 in September this year, lunar exploration scientists believe that the time has come to look at the moon in a different light — as a base for space exploration and a source of Helium 3, which is pegged as earth’s future fuel.

Scientists say the coming decade will be crucial with unprecedented focus on the moon. The powers of the world, including the US, Europe, China, Japan and India, are all sending missions to the moon.

While, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has recently announced its decision to put a man on the moon by 2020, Chandrayan 1, the unmanned moon mission is expected to be launched in 2008. Before that happens, China’s Chang’e and Japan’s SELENE 1 missions would have already been launched in 2007.

Japanese space agency, JAXA’s SELENE 1 mission “is the biggest and the most sophisticated lunar orbiter since Apollo era,” says Jung Kawaguchi, head of the Japanese lunar exploration programme.

By 2008 NASA will launch the lunar reconnaissance orbiter (LRO), potentially followed by a lander in the early 2010s. The next 10 years will be the most significant period in lunar exploration, according to Steve Durst, director, International Lunar Observatory, Hawaii.

“A launchpad to the solar system, a gateway to the stars, the moon is quickly becoming this decade’s preferred off-Earth destination for a flotilla of national, international and private commercial lunar enterprises,” says Durst.

The moon will provide the first off-Earth base for inter-planetary research in the near future, says Prof Bernard H Foing, principal project scientist of the recently concluded SMART 1 mission by the European Space Agency (ESA). “The moon is interesting scientifically to understand the origin and evolution of Earth-like planets, but also to test new technologies, and learn to establish robotic and human outposts beyond Earth,” he says.

Scientists say inter-planetary research missions from the Earth are too expensive and fuel inefficient because of the gravitational force. Earth’s gravitational pull is six times that of the moon.

Then there is Helium 3 — believed to be the fuel of the future. The moon’s surface has about one million tones of it. Picture this: just 25 tonnes of the element, which can be carried back on a space shuttle, is enough to provide electricity to the US for one year. Setting up a lunar mining base will enable man to bring Helium 3 shipments to the earth. India’s moon mission Chandrayan 1 will study the chemical and mineral composition of the moon’s surface in great detail.

The future will see the moon as a destination for tourism and colonisation too. While American private enterprises have already begun selling plots of land on the moon, it will be possible to go to the moon for honeymoon one day. “It will happen some day. However, when it appears is a matter of time-scale,” says Kawaguchi.

Japan expects to use the moon as a base for space exploration and sees prospects of humans staying there for long periods. “There will be human presence on the surface of the moon in the later half of 2010s and beyond. A lunar stay for several months is expected. Constructing a lunar base or modules will occur with the appropriate sharing of roles,” he adds.

Email jatin.gandhi@hindustantimes.com