Countries are Exploring Collaboration—not Competition—for Moon Projects
The International Space Station is seen in front of the moon.
US$100 million The budget for a joint moon lander project by SpaceIL, Israel Aerospace Industries and SpaceX—resulting in the first private lunar orbit.
The world is moonstruck again. After several years of dormancy, projects to explore the moon are heating up in a major way: China, India, Russia, Israel, Germany and the United States all have projects to go to the moon in some capacity this year.
It's not just the quantity that's noteworthy, though—these projects are trying to generate major breakthroughs. In January, the China National Space Administration's Chang'e 4 became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the moon. Beresheet, Israel's US$100 million moon lander project, took a 4-million-mile (6.4-million-kilometer) journey to the moon. While it successfully orbited the moon, the lander crashed on the surface in April. The joint effort among the nonprofit SpaceIL, Israel Aerospace Industries and SpaceX resulted in the first nongovernment agency to send a spacecraft into lunar orbit.
These aren't the space race wars of the past either. International collaboration is at the heart of new exploration projects, with teams from various global outposts working together to overcome technical hurdles. The United States’ NASA, for instance, is collaborating on data exchanges with China's project and helped provide communication and technology support for the Beresheet project.
“As NASA works toward its plan to sustainably return to the moon, it will be critical to collaborate with both commercial and international partners along the way,” the agency said in a press release. “This approach will enable human expansion across the solar system and bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”
State of International Space
The Chang'e 4 project joined forces with numerous groups from other countries, including project teams from Germany, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands. The lander's ultimate goal is to collect information on the moon's surface and internal structure, which can help explain the origins of the solar system. But first, the project team had to lean on collaboration to overcome an initial major hurdle.
The far side of the moon has no line of sight to Earth, and thus no radio communication. In order to enable communication, Chang'e 4 first had to build and launch a relay satellite. A team from Radboud University, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and satellite-construction company Innovative Solutions in Space helped build the satellite. The technology will also work with the Chinese radio instrument on the moon lander itself to collect data. “Both instruments are not only designed to collect scientific results, but they also provide us with technical information needed to design a future flock of small astronomical radio satellites,” Albert-Jan Boonstra, program manager at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, told Phys.org.
More isn't always merrier, though: Additional collaborators can create challenges, especially around project timelines. India's second lunar exploration project, the INR8 billion Chandrayaan-2, could paint the most holistic picture of the moon yet when it studies the topography, mineralogy and exosphere. But the project from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has faced many delays, first stalling during development due to the cancellation of an agreement with Russian space agency Roscosmos.
In 2007, Roscosmos signed an agreement with ISRO to provide a lander for the 2015 exploration project. However, Russia's own Phobos-Grunt project in 2011, which was supposed to collect samples from one of Mars’ moons, ended with a propulsion system failure, causing the spacecraft to crash into the Pacific Ocean. Due to this technical issue and other financial troubles, Russia withdrew from the agreement. India had to reset its program and push back the launch date, ultimately choosing to build its own lander. The project has since faced additional delays, with the launch date being pushed back several times in the past couple of years alone. At press time, it was expected to launch in July.
The bureaucracy that accompanies international cooperation can also lead to funding issues, says Andrew Coates, PhD, professor of physics at University College London, London, England. Teams, however, can help mitigate risks if they are aware of these potential challenges from the project's kickoff. “Usually, these issues can be worked around,” Dr. Coates says. “When done correctly, collaboration can be a boost for science.”—Ashley Bishel
—Andrew Coates, PhD, University College London, London, England