It is no exaggeration to say that we are living in an era of renewed space exploration. The Moon, in particular, has become the focus of increasing attention in recent years. In addition to President Trump's recent directive to NASA to return to the Moon, many other space agencies and private aerospace companies are planning their own lunar missions. The Chinese Exploration Program (CLEP), also known as the Chang' e program, is the most advanced. Its baggage, which includes everything needed to reconstitute an ecosystem on the Moon, is being packed. Let's go!
Nommitted in honour of the ancient Chinese Moon Goddess, this program has already sent two orbiters and a lander to the Moon. But this year, 2018, China is about to achieve what no one has been able to do before. Exploring the dark side of the Moon and settling there. To achieve this feat, which has been impossible so far due to the lack of radio connections with the Earth on this side of the Moon, China is putting in the big guns. In June, it will send a relay satellite that will be placed 60,000 km behind the Moon and will ensure communication with our good old Earth. Later this year, the Chang' e 4 mission will begin, on the far side of our satellite, to study the local geology and test the effects of lunar gravity on insects and plants.
A greenhouse on the moon
The mission will consist of a relay orbiter to be launched on a Long March-5 rocket in June 2018. This relay orbiter will orbit the region known as Point Lagrange. The launch of the lander and rover will take place approximately six months later. In addition to a series of sophisticated instruments to study the lunar surface, the lander module will also carry an aluminum alloy container filled with seeds and insects.
As Zhang Yuanxun - chief designer of the container - told the Chongqing Morning Post (according to China Daily) : « The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis (arabette) seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon. The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can create a simple ecosystem on the Moon."
This aluminium greenhouse on the lunar ground should allow researchers to observe the growth process of animals and plants on our natural satellite. Challenges for this experiment include temperature control and energy supply. The scientists in charge of the project have therefore equipped their container with a real autonomous air-conditioning system as well as specially designed batteries with a very high energy density. This space gardening kit paves the way for a larger project: setting up a human outpost on the Moon. Like in the movie Alone on Mars, future lunar astronauts will be able to grow potatoes!
The Mysteries of the Dark Side of the Moon
The mission will also be the first mission sent to an unexplored region on the other side of the Moon. This region is called the South Pole-Aitken Basina vast impact region in the southern hemisphere. Measuring about 2,500 km in diameter and 13 km deep, it is the largest single-impact basin on the Moon and one of the largest in the solar system.
The South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the moon. Source: Wikimedia
This basin is also a source of great interest to scientists, and not only because of its size. In recent years, it has been discovered that the area contains large amounts of water ice. It is believed that it is the consequences of meteor and asteroid impacts that have left water ice, which has survived because this area is permanently in the shadow of the sun. Without direct sunlight, the water ice in these craters was not subjected to sublimation and chemical dissociation.
Since the 1960s, several missions have explored this region in orbit. These include the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Indian Orbiter Chandrayaan-1. This last mission (which was set up in 2008) also consisted of sending the lunar impact probe Probe on the Moon's surface to trigger the release of matter, which was then analyzed by the orbiter. The mission confirmed the presence of water ice in the Aitken Crater, a discovery that was confirmed about a year later by NASA's ARO.
As a result of this discovery, several space exploration specialists have stated that the South Pole-Aitken Basin would be the ideal location for a lunar base. In this regard, the Chang' e 4 mission is studying the possibility, even for humans, of living and working on the Moon. Another interesting aspect of this mission is that it will also evaluate whether terrestrial organisms can grow and thrive in the lunar gravity - which is about 16 percent of Earth's gravity (or 0.1654 g). Previous studies aboard the ISS have shown that long-term exposure to microgravity can have adverse effects on the health of the Earth's atmosphere. significant health effectsbut little is known about the long-term effects of low severity.
The Chinese aren't the only ones with a lunar exploration program. ESA, the European Space Agency, is providing two important instruments for a Russian-led lunar lander planned for 2022. ESA is also providing the primary power and propulsion system for NASA's Orion space capsule, which is scheduled for an unmanned lunar orbit around the moon in 2019. Finally, the European Agency is participating in exploratory discussions with the Chinese National Space Administration to identify opportunities for future collaboration on robotic exploration missions.
Artist's view of the ESA Lunar Village project
ESA's collaborative approach is perhaps illustrated by the concept of Moon VillageThe new Director General, Jan Woerner, was proposed by the Director General shortly after he took office in 2015. The Moon Village is seen as an open-ended endeavour to ensure a permanent and sustainable presence on the Moon, both robotic and human. The concept implies that ESA plays a non-traditional role as "... a global player in the field of space travel...". honest broker", facilitator and catalyst to global stakeholders « explains Piero Messina, from ESA's Strategy Department.
It is safe to say that China's plans are the most advanced.
If all goes well for the Chang' e 4 mission, China intends to continue with more robotic missions and a crewed mission attempt in about 15 years. There has also been talk of including a radio telescope in the mission. This instrument would be deployed on the other side of the Moon, where it would not be polluted by radio signals from Earth (a common puzzle in radio astronomy). The scientific benefits are enormous. Being in the shadow of the Moon provides an unparalleled view of the universe. Cited by The GuardianHeino Falcke of Radboud University in the Netherlands hopes to take full advantage of this by providing a radio telescope to the Chinese mission. His goal is to test how easy it will be to pick up signals from the early universe at a time when there were no stars. Astronomers call this time the "Dark Age" because nothing emitted light. But hydrogen atoms were emitting radio waves that Falcke hopes to pick up. He designed the instrument for a lunar mission that the European Space Agency (ESA) had planned about five years ago. But that mission was postponed and the Dutch astronomer's dreams were put off indefinitely. But when the King of the Netherlands visited China as part of a trade delegation, the idea was revived.
And depending on what the mission can tell us about the South Pole-Aitken basin (especially if the water ice is abundant and tolerable to radiation), it is possible that space agencies will send other missions there in the coming years. Things are going to be moving fast on the Moon...