Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Japan Begins Moon Exploration; China & India Soon

On Oct. 5, just one day after the 50th anniversary of the Soviets firing the first Earth satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, Japan scored its greatest success yet of its space effort, placing an unmanned observatory in orbit around the moon.

This is the most extensive moon mission since the American Apollo 17, and it presages a whole series of moon explorations and robotic landings before man returns to the moon for the first time since 1972. The U.S. plans this by 2020, but others may land men there sooner.

The Japanese lunar probe, named Kaguya after a princess in Japanese folklore, is formally called the SELenological and ENgineering Explorer (SELENE) and it will orbit the moon from an altitude of about 62 miles for a year, taking pictures, extensively mapping both the side of the moon presented to Earth, and the other (dark) side, examining the moon's gravity and magnetic fields and even conducting a search for the water that would facilitate longtime human habitation.

Already, the probe has jettisoned one of two 110-pound baby satellites that will help create a detailed gravity map of the moon and the other will be jettisoned on Oct. 14.

The trip from Earth to the vicinity of the moon took three weeks and was the culmination of an effort that had been delayed four years. It is costing the Japanese $480 million.

Meanwhile, the Chinese, which has put its first men into Earth orbit, have announced plans to launch their Chang'e-1 moon exploration vehicle by the end of the year, and India has plans to launch its Chandrayaan-1 probe next year.

The U.S. also plans next year to launch NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. This is the first of the missions it will send to the moon in preparation for another manned landing. The probe will be placed in low polar orbit around the moon and be directed at examining the environment there, with particular emphasis on discovering any ice that exists. This probe, like the Japanese, will be in orbit about a year. Instruments are already being assembled, and the goal is a launching around the end of the year.

Needless to say, the Japanese, Chinese and Indian efforts may be a spur to the U.S. It is possible, and I think desirable, for budgetary allocations to NASA to increase.

A manned lunar station is probably a vital precursor to an eventual manned probe to Mars, and it is possible that such an expedition would use the moon as a launching base, since its lesser gravity makes such a mission easier from there than from Earth.

All this is of the highest moment, as man begins to organize a Mars mission, and, at about the same time, a mission to near Earth asteroids. A manned mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter believed to have oceans of frozen methane, may eventually follow.

The Japanese lunar probe hasn't gotten a great deal of press attention in the U.S. The L.A. Times gave just a short to the news that the probe had entered moon orbit. It was worth a lot more than that. However, the Times did run a story from the Chicago Tribune on experimentations with a developing moon rover on moon-like terrain in Arizona. This rover is expected to have a 200-kilometer range, compared to the 10-kilometer range of rovers in the Apollo program, and to carry two astronauts.

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LA Observed quotes Sam Zell, whose ownership of the Tribune Co. may, according to speculation in the last week, become final by Oct. 24, as telling a Beverly Hills audience that he will not put the L.A. Times up for sale.

But as for the Chicago Cubs, Zell said they are definitely on the block. "I have no idea who's going to end up with the Cubs," Zell said. "But it ain't going to be me." The Tribune Co. owns the Cubs, but said some time ago it would sell the team by the end of the year. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, and went down to the Arizona Diamondbacks in this year's divisional championships in three straight games.

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