Space Agencies Take New Look At Moon
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SPACE AGENCIES TAKE NEW LOOK AT MOON
By Helen Briggs
Saturday, 27 July, 2002
Thirty years after the last lunar landing, space agencies are setting new
sights on the Moon.
Europe is sending an unmanned spacecraft to map the satellite early in 2003.
The mission, Smart-1, will fly over all of the Apollo landing sites in the
Meanwhile, US scientists are calling on their space agency (Nasa) to
seriously consider sending spacecraft, rovers, and even astronauts back "up
It comes amid conflicting reports that the emerging space power, China, may
launch a manned Moon mission.
The new interest in lunar exploration stems in part from the desire to
understand how life on Earth began.
Many scientists believe dust on the Moon contains relics of rocks blasted
off the face of the Earth about four billion years ago by comets and
Lunar craters could even harbour fossils of some of Earth's earliest
microbial life, according to a team of US scientists.
"The most exciting discovery would be actual preserved fossils or even
original organic fragments of early life," says Guillermo Gonzalez,
assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Iowa State University.
"We expect them to be relatively rare; most fragments from the Earth will be
melted rock," he told BBC News Online. "But even the melted rock bits will
be useful in helping us date the individual impact events on the Earth,
which are presently unknown."
Dr Gonzalez is one of three US scientists who air their views in the
forthcoming edition of the international astronomy journal Icarus.
Co-author John Armstrong of the University of Washington says there are good
reasons for taking a new look at the Moon.
"A Nasa researcher, Kevin Zahnle, said: 'It is not that the Moon is the best
place to look, it is the only place'," he told BBC News Online.
Mr Armstrong says the most likely option for searching for fossils on the
Moon is a robotic mission.
But he thinks grabbing a chunk of rock "with Earth's name on it" is a task
better suited to astronauts.
"People can scan a surface and spot odd looking rocks much better than a
robot," he says. "A robot would have to grab a bunch of soil and sift
through it piece by piece.
"I don't advocate sending a manned mission just to look for Earth rocks," he
adds. "But if we do go back, we should keep our eyes open."
The next opportunity to go back to the Moon is in early 2003 when the
European Space Agency launches its Smart-1 mission.
The main objective is to test a new type of engine technology - solar
electric propulsion - which could power future missions very long distances
into deep space.
In the process, the mission will attempt to answer questions that have long
fascinated humankind: How was the Moon formed? What role did it play in the
early history of the Earth?
Orion, the lunar module dropped by Apollo 16 on 21 April 1972, carried six
hand-held cameras to photograph the Moon's surface.
In contrast, Smart-1 will be using the latest X-ray and infrared imaging
techniques to map the Moon's surface more accurately than before.
Some of the scientific instruments are being built in the UK. Dr Sara
Russell, a meteorite researcher at London's Natural History Museum, says the
data should help plug gaps in our knowledge of the Moon.
"The Apollo missions in their day were an incredible technological advance
but they still left a lot of questions unanswered," she told BBC News
The Apollo astronauts brought back 382 kg of lunar rock and three unmanned
Soviet probes returned another 300 g.
But the samples were taken from particular places on the lunar surface,
which do not necessarily represent the Moon as a whole.
"What we want to do on the Smart-1 mission is look at the composition of the
entire Moon," says Dr Russell,
So could the new data satisfy conspiracy theorists who believe the Moon
landings never happened, once and for all?
"I think the conspiracy theorists will always believe what they want to
believe no matter what the scientists say," says Dr Russell.
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