M O O N R U S H
Tracking the lunar lucre
It was August 15, 2003. The Independence day speech of the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had just triggered a round of heated exchanges among the country’s top notch scientists. Reason? Vajpayee had given his nod to the US $100-million state-funded space project Chandrayaan I. The unmanned lunar orbiter was going to place a satellite in orbit 100 kilometres above the moon, to minutely map its surface, for the first time ever. While the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was in raptures about the mission, which it claimed, “will provide a unique opportunity for frontier scientific research," others were less effusive. Could India afford such a luxury?, asked Dr Raghuraman of the Delhi Science Forum. Was ISRO losing track of its commitment to India’s overall development in its ‘quest for power and fame?’, debated the more vocal critics.
It is 2010 now and much has happened in the past seven years. Of course, Chandrayaan has taken off in a blaze of glory. But that’s not all. The nagging doubts about the relevance of space explorations have also been put to rest.Globally. No, we have not turned into a more adventurous race. We have become more overtly greedy.
Don’t believe me? Well, listen to what Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, US, had to say at the 10th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate held at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, in March this year. “Space xploration has always been about wealth creation… We need a permanent, stable presence on the Moon… routinely access every planet in cis-lunar space,” he declared.
Spudis had many supporters. Steven Squyres, professor of Astronomy at the Cornell University, said, “Asteroids are an incredible resource”, and suggested that the National Aeronautics and Space Administartion (NASA) should consider missions to explore these astral bodies, lavishly rich in minerals and other natural resources.
Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon after Neil Armstrong, summed the debate up very aptly. He declared that space programmes currently address the following: exploration (finding new spaces); development (building on them), commercial (making money out of them); scientific (learning about them); and security (using them for national interest).
These people quoted above are not speculators. They are professionals who are pushing their career’s growth graphs, and while doing that they are also pushing the boundary of this world as we know it.
Yes, Space missions are more like a treasure hunt. As the Earth gets dry and bare, human beings are making more frequent and frenzied forays into space to track survival sources outside the Planet. And Moon being the astronomical body closest to the Earth it is also the most invaded. Every one wants a piece of the beautiful moon. Especially now, as India’s moon probe Chandrayaan I reveals that a massive 600 million metric tonnes of water lies frozen in the lunar ice sheets. To the parched, water-starved Earthlings moon has never looked more tempting!
Fiction, film or future?
That intelligent creatures exist in outer space is proven by the fact that they carefully avoid being discovered by us. It is sheer common sense. Why should anyone want to be discovered by robbers?
Remember Avatar, the super duper box office success, written and
directed by Hollywood giant James ameroon? It is a story of humans, a thousand years from now, who have exhausted the Earth’s natural resources and are living afloat in space, hunting for undiscovered resource-rich planets. They invade Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, to mine a priceless mineral called unobtanium. Pandora is inhabited by human-like species called the Na’avis, and other exotic flora and fauna. The most intriguing feature of the film is the resemblance that the Na’avis bear with tribal communities who live in various parts of the world now.
John S. Lewis, a professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, authored a book, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets. According to this publication, the value of a normal M-type asteroid ( other two varieties are C and S types) would be around US $20 trillion: with US $8 trillion worth of iron and nickel; US $6 trillion worth of cobalt; and US $6 trillion of platinum-group metals.
Our closest neighbour, the moon is minutely mapped for its mineral contents. In it’s soil it has:
The moon air contains ample Helium 3, which is a fuel for nuclear fission reactors, touted as the energy source of the future.
It began thousands of years ago. The earliest astral observations were made by the Chinese astronomers. But the mystery of the moon truly excited the humans after the invention of the telescope in 1609. Moon could now be seen up close, and with great clarity. Now the next step. Studying it from astronomical distances was not enough, humans had to get closer, and actually land on the moon!
But that was possible many discoveries and inventions later. The Wright brothers invented the aeroplane, enabling people to fly. Space passage became smoother in 1943, after Wernher Von Braun, founder of Germany’s pre war rocket development programme, unveiled the combat rocket V 2. This was the beginning of the Space Age. The V 2 followed its programmed trajectory perfectly. After the end of World War II, Von Braun and his rocket team concentrated on refining the V 2 rocket. But now their base was in the US.
Wernher Von Braun
In the global arena the World War II was succeeded by another form of combat. The Cold War. It was the continuing state of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between two camps, headed by the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Interestingly, the moon played a stellar role in this deadly face off. The two super powers vied with each other to mark their territories in the lunar land. Turn to pages 68-69 to read about this strategic space war.
The fallout was many scientifically significant developments. Such as the till-then unseen photographs of the planet, and of course, the landing of the first humans on the moon in 1969.
Wooing the moon?
But the US and the erstwhile USSR were not the only moonstruck nations. A few others, too, have since joined the race. Here are a few examples:
Their ancestors were frontrunners in unravelling the moon mystery, and the Chinese are not prepared to be left behind in this race. The People’s Republic of China has begun the Chang’e programme for exploring the Moon and is investigating the prospect of lunar mining, specifically looking for the isotope helium-3 for use as an energy source on Earth. It sent its first Taikonaut (taikong being the Chinese word for space) to space in 2003, and launched the Chang’e 1 robotic lunar orbiter on October 24, 2007.
Not very long ago India’s efforts in space technology were limited to communications and weather forecast. Till ISRO launched Chandrayaan-1, an unmanned lunar orbiter, on October 22, 2008. The lunar probe was originally intended to orbit the Moon for two years, with scientific objectives to prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the near and far side of the Moon and to conduct a chemical and mineralogical mapping of the lunar surface. It landed on the moon at 15:04 GMT on November 14, 2008, making India the fourth country to touch down on the lunar surface.
No wonder, ISRO’s budget has been increased by 38 per cent this year. The agency has received a whopping Rs 57.78 billion ($1.25 billion) for research work in 2010 .
Rocket science is probably one of the most complicated disciplines we know. But such challenges only tease the human mind to be more innovative. Here are some samples of the technological research that are in progress in this field. The driving force of course is the need to explore the resource-rich planet and to bring home the goodies.
Once we have zeroed in on what we want, and from where we want it, there are three options:
For starters, let’s identify the basic equipment and techniques used for mining and then look at the challenges of using these in space.
The functions are broadly four:
Fragmentation Breaking material from its in situ surroundings.
Now what is required to make these space-friendly?
The body of the machines have to be more robust to withstand astral conditions;
A mechanism to hold on to the surface without gravitational pull has to be devised; and
An energy source that can sustain this operation in space has to be arranged for.
Space research, currently, is focused on these concerns.
When every nation wants a share in the moon territory, a mutual agreement is the next logical step. Right? Well, a Moon Treaty was hammered out in 1979. It intended to establish a regime for the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies similar to the one established for the sea floor in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Till December 19, 2008, only 13 countries Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, and Uruguay had ratified it. India along with France, Guatemala, and Romania have signed it but have not ratified.Yet.
Result? Moon is free-for-all. Whoever has the resources to reach it, can mine it.
A placard at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, December, 2009, had announced, “There is no Planet B”. The world leaders were not perturbed by the ominous message. Why should they? There is always space for more!