There’s an old Russia song that goes, “There could be apple trees on Mars”. That might be the stuff of a legend, but a recent discovery of water frozen in the pools of Earth’s closest neighbor, the Moon, means the idea of growing trees in space may not be so farfetched. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered the presence of water ice in polar craters that sit in the Sun’s shadow and Russia’s Space Research Institute is developing the Lunar Globe Probe which will examine the content of that water and whether it can support life. It’s been some 41 years since the last time that human being scuffed lunar soil. But Igor Mitrofanov is the Head of the Lunar Program at Russia’s Space Research Institute. He says there’s a new focus in getting people there.
“There’s a large difference between the lunar exploration in the 20th century and in the current century. I think that Moon projects of the last century were mainly motivated by the political competition between two major space states. I remember that President Kennedy said once that he would never give even single buck for the Moon exploration if it were only for science. I think that in this century people probably begin to consider Moon more pragmatically, but they’re considering that probably Moon will be important part of the future civilization.”
Lunar Globe 1 will be the first of four missions planned before the creation of a fully robotic lunar base. The orbiter will have a payload of 120 kg which will include astrophysics equipment, dust monitors and plasma sensors to study ultrahigh energy cosmic rays.
“Polar regions have never been visited before, so study of these regions, study of the possibilities of resources utilization is the objective of Moon exploration in this century.”
The long-term goal is for permanent manned mission to the Moon as a stepping stone to further space exploration. In 2016 it’s hoped that the Lunar Globe 2 orbiter will be launched and in the following year a landing module with huge range of scientific equipment including a rover will be ready.
“Because if people will decide to build sometime space stations on the Moon, it is very important that water is there. Using this natural resource people may develop oxygen for breathing. H2O water just to have something to drink and also though various chemical process we may produce the fuel for the rockets.”
But it’s not just scientists going for a moon shot. Sergei Kostenko is the head of the Moscow office of Space Adventures. That’s a U.S. company that already sent seven people to the international space station, including the first-ever space tourist Denis Tito. It currently offers suborbital and orbital flights. But he says that the next logical step is to take tourists to circumnavigate the Moon within five years.
“The Moon will be the first point for humankind in the space. It’s not far – just three days of flying. So probably Moon will be first stop in the space for people. Just to create circumlunar mission complex and to fly around the Moon – it’s like the first step, the entrance to our Moon odyssey. And we still don’t have plans to build something on the Moon – maybe in the future.”
Also possible is the idea of a roundtrip to Mars, as put forward by the space tourist Denis Tito.
“I like this concept – inspiration Mars, it’s very clever to inspire people for something new, for new technology and so it’s not easy to realize this project, but it’s feasible. My opinion is that it takes a lot of energy, takes a lot of money, but in five years theoretically it’s feasible.”
There have been setbacks in Russia’s space program. The most recent was a botched launch of a Telecom’s satellite last year, while in 2011 the Fobos-Grunt probe got stuck in the Earth’s orbit and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, but Igor Mitrofanov from Russia’s Space Institute says that lessons have been learned. It’s important to remember that the Moon is not really that far away.
“We all agree that it’s probably too early to send humans to Mars. What we have to do is that we have to start this in the vicinity of the Moon. I’d say that if Moon is our island, Mars is another continent. So we have to cross a large ocean of space between Earth and Mars. And in case of Moon it’s so close, it’s just three days of flight. Probably by train to Vladivostok it will take longer than by spacecraft to Moon.”
And it’ll be Russia’s Far East where the Lunar Globe will leave off with a launch to take place at the Vostochny Spaceport.