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Space Agencies Take New Look At Moon

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 657 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... SPACE AGENCIES TAKE NEW LOOK AT MOON By Helen Briggs
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 27, 2002
      NHNE News List
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      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.

      Earthly fossils

      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.

      'Only place'

      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."

      Deep space

      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.

      Conspiracy theories

      "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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