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2018 is the year India, China and Israel go to the moon

2018 is the year India, China and Israel go to the moon
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Interest in exploring Earth’s nearest neighbor has not been so intense since the days of the Apollo program almost 50 years ago. The 21st-century race back to the moon is no longer limited to the U.S. and Russia, as three other contenders will launch expeditions to the lunar surface later this year.

India

India plans to launch the Chandrayaan-2, which consists of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, in October. The lander and rover will touch down near the south pole of the moon and, as the Times of India suggests, go prospecting for resources.

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The rover will hunt for water, known to reside frozen in the darkened craters of the south polar region of the moon, and helium-3, an isotope that has been deposited on the moon by solar wind over billions of years. He-3 may be a clean (i.e. not radioactive) fuel for future fusion reactors, though the technology to use it is many years off.

 

China

Next up, China intends to launch the Chang’e 4 in December, an upgraded version of the Chang’e 3 that landed on the moon five years ago, according to NBC News.

The Chinese lander and rover will also land near the lunar south-pole but on the far side of the moon. China has already deployed the Queqiao relay satellite at the Earth-Moon L2 point over the far side so that data and images from the surface probe can be relayed back to Earth.

The Chang’e 4 lander will take images and video of its surroundings while the rover will examine the chemistry of the nearby rocks and soil and use ground-penetrating radar to look into the moon’s interior.

China’s has impressive ambitions regarding the moon. Beijing intends to land its own explorers on the lunar surface by the end of the 2020s. Considering China’s aggressive, imperialist actions on Earth, particularly in the South China Sea, those plans for the moon are of some concern for American policymakers.

Israel

The most remarkable mission of all to the moon will also depart in December but will not arrive on the lunar surface until February 2019. SpaceIL, a private group in the State of Israel, is mounting an expedition to the lunar surface, an effort that started as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The competition still officially exists, but the cash prize has now been eliminated.

The science part of the SpaceIL mission is more modest than those of India or China, according to the Times of Israel. The probe will take images and video of the surrounding area, plant the Israeli flag, and measure the moon’s magnetic field. However, the significance of the Israeli mission resides in the fact that it is almost entirely privately financed and operated. The mission is designed to ignite an “Apollo effect” to inspire investment in STEM businesses and education and to put Israel on the map as a significant space power.

What about the two nations that conducted the original race to the moon?

Russia’s space program, as Ars Technica reports, has seen better days. Russia still has significant space dreams but lacks the money to pay for them. The once-awesome Russian space program, whose feats in the early 1960s first inspired President John F. Kennedy to throw down the gauntlet of the first moon race, is in survival mode.

The United States has turned its attention back toward the moon but finds itself lagging behind thanks to former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFive takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Live coverage: Heitkamp faces Cramer in high-stakes North Dakota debate Khashoggi prompts Trump to reconsider human rights in foreign policy MORE’s ill-considered decision to close down lunar exploration in 2010. Lacking Apollo-level budgets, NASA is starting to form alliances with commercial companies, such as Moon Express and Astrobotic, to carry its scientific instruments to the lunar surface. The earliest American expedition back to the moon may happen by the end of 2019.

However, the United States has big plans for the moon, hoping to send people back to the lunar surface within a decade. Leading an international and commercial coalition, NASA intends to build a space station called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in orbit around the moon and a lunar surface base. The United States sees the moon as not only a gateway to Mars, but also a worthy destination in its own right, for both science and commerce.

In any event, the moon is about to become a very busy place as the world community reaches out to take advantage of the opportunities it offers.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”