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Back to the Moon

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The moon is again in the focus of world space exploration. Recently water was discovered on the moon – something scientists did not expect to find. This could lead to the establishment of lunar bases, though, granted, experts still believe it would take enormous amounts of money to make this a reality.

The moon is again in the focus of world space exploration. Recently water was discovered on the moon - something scientists did not expect to find. This could lead to the establishment of lunar bases, though, granted, experts still believe it would take enormous amounts of money to make this a reality.

Returning to the moon

The moon race of the 1960s and early 1970s was followed by a long hiatus in moon exploration. But now space experts are seriously considering the moon as a subject of research in the next 10 to 15 years.

A number of countries, such as the United States and China, have plans for manned flights to the moon and, in the future, for lunar bases. Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Space Agency, has said that Russians may land on the moon in 2020.

The moon project is not going to be cheap. "It will require 50 billion rubles annually just to build the technical facilities and prepare a manned mission to the moon in 10 years' time," said Alexander Zheleznyakov, member of the Russian Space Academy. With the agency's annual budget of 120 billion rubles, he said, the project will call for additional government funding.

Previously, experts estimated that large-scale moon exploration would increase the agency's expenses six-fold or more, compared with the planned budget for 2014 (200 billion rubles).

Small step not followed up

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union racked up some sensational firsts over the United States. There was the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (1957), the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth (1957), and first man in space (1961). The triumphs of Sergei Korolyov's team were splashed across the front pages of the global press. They had the whole country behind them. They feared nothing. They dared to dream even bigger.

But the Soviet Union's competitor in the Space Race was no slouch. America roused and rushed to make up for lost time and rebuild its prestige, which took a hit at the hands of Soviet cosmonautics. John F. Kennedy fearlessly set his nation the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

That was the beginning of the Apollo program. Some conspiracy theorists maintain that the moon landing was faked, that Neil Armstrong planted the American flag in a Hollywood studio. This can be explained as defensive reaction: Sergei Korolyov's team achieved something phenomenal by sending Yury Gagarin into space, but the team led by Wernher von Braun, backed by U.S. aerospace corporations, overtook them by leaps and bounds.

It all seemed too much for many to believe: the first manned mission in 1961 was followed in December 1968 by Frank Borman's Apollo 8 crew orbiting the moon, and then, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin awkwardly descended from the Eagle landing module on the moon's surface.

Of course, a great deal of luck was involved: even the Apollo 13 accident (of "Houston, we have a problem" fame) occurred at a very fitting moment. Had the oxygen tank exploded any sooner or later, the astronauts would have been doomed.

In December 1972, the United States ended its moon program with the sixth Apollo 17 landing. Two years before, NASA cancelled three manned missions, which were to have followed 17.

"The objective was posed as follows: an American lands on the moon, and this completes the mission. Once it was achieved, no additional developments were pursued," believes Vladislav Shevchenko, head of lunar and planetary research at Moscow State University's Astronomical Institute.

NASA had already gotten everything it could of the lunar expeditions, and it continued to be an expensive and dangerous undertaking (the Apollo 13 accident). Politically, the costs began to outweigh the benefits. The country was coming out of the traumas of the late 1960s, and the U.S. government was licking its wounds from the defeat in Vietnam, which reverberated throughout society.

The Soviet Union never made it to the moon: the disastrous saga of the N-1 booster, replete with design flaws and political battles, ended in fiasco, as expected. After taking such a giant leap, humankind focused on more routine business: fighting free thinking, terrorism, and energy crisis. Scientific interest in the dusty and desolate moon waned.

Water in a vacuum

The explosive discovery of water on the moon came in the second half of the 2000s. A mission undertaken by U.S. research probes, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), found large quantities of water.

That was news, because the lunar soil samples collected by the Soviet Luna-16, Luna-20, and Luna-24 probes, and U.S. manned expeditions had showed only trace amounts of water.

In 1994, NASA's Clementine probe, while mapping the southern pole of the moon, found signs of extensive ice deposits. It was not until 2009, however, that the LRO/LCROSS tandem confirmed the presence of ice at the lunar poles.

The moon does not have polar ice caps like the Antarctic, but ice crystals proved to be plentiful in its soil, which was unexpected: the estimated figure was 5.6% with a margin of error of 2.9%.

At the same time, the Indian probe Chandrayaan-1 discovered the existence of huge chunks of ice deep in craters at the moon's north pole. It is estimated that 600 million tons of water are buried under the moon's north pole.

Russia is now working on the Luna-Glob and Luna-Resurs programs. They are to be implemented in the middle 2010s. One of the results must be collecting "moist" lunar soil from the polar areas and delivering it back to earth.

Quite a different matter

The discovery of water on the moon has radically changed scientists' attitude to lunar studies.

All previous moon base projects (moon exploration and utilization is not possible without bases) hinged on one condition: an expedition would have to bring along massive quantities of supplies, including water.

Now a base created deep in the soil (to protect it from space radiation) and resting on extensive ice outcroppings can simplify matters a great deal. By adopting a closed-circuit treatment cycle, the moon station can meet its own water needs. In addition, since the 1970s, scientists have been devising schemes to extract oxygen from lunar soil (which contains 40% of trapped oxygen).

Progress in automation and control has likewise contributed greatly to the feasibility of moon colonization. What had to be done by hand or primitive automation 40 or 50 years ago can now be handled by remote-controlled robots with minimal human presence.

"Alien moon bases are a myth. Earth moon bases can be reality in the foreseeable future," Zheleznyakov said.

Future fuel

The surge in interest in the Moon in the middle 2000s sprang from an even more fantastic chemical element: helium. Lunar soil contains sizeable amounts of helium-3 (compared with what is available on Earth).

A helium-deuterium nuclear fusion reaction is viewed as a good replacement for the well-known deuterium-tritium reaction used in thermonuclear weapons. But the prospects for this isotope lie in civilian, not military, applications: it can be used as fuel in the thermonuclear fusion of the future.

For decades scientists have been trying to build a functional thermonuclear reactor. To do this they must achieve sustained and controlled nuclear fusion. Controlled fission works fine: it is used at nuclear power plants. Nuclear fusion remains elusive.

If, however, energy experts make a fusion breakthrough, the Moon may prove a valuable asset, setting off a thrilling race like the Yukon gold rush.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-

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