August 16, 2010
Modern-day Space Race To The Moon
Russia and India are battling China in a modern-day space race to land an unmanned probe on the moon.
Russian and Indian engineers have started working together on a robotic mission to land on the moon in 2013.China's Chang'e-3 spacecraft is also racing to get to Earth's celestial neighbor during the same time frame.
Whichever rover lands first would be the first human hardware to function on the lunar surface since the Soviet Luna-24 spacecraft returned to Earth with Moon soil samples in 1976.
The joint Russian and Indian mission will include an Indian-built lunar orbiter and a Russian-built landing platform, which would both be launched by a single Indian rocket.
The Russian-built four-legged platform will deliver about 77 pounds of scientific equipment to the Moon and release a 33-pound Indian-built robotic rover.
The tiny Indian electric vehicle is expected to provide scientific data, thanks to miniaturization of technology.
"We do understand that, first of all, it is a demonstration of the Indian presence on the surface of the Moon," Aleksandr Zakharov, a leading scientist at the Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow told BBC News.
"However, it will have a TV camera onboard, and we also asked our Indian partners to include a miniature manipulator, so it could sample soil beyond the reach of the robotic arm of the (stationary Russian) lander."
Zakharov told BBC that the rover and all of its scientific equipment is expected to be Indian-built, even though India is free to solicit foreign participation.
Russian space industry officials said that the country recently put the highest priority on the Luna-Resource project in order to fulfill the 2013 launch window.
Zakharov said the work on the lander was proceeding even more actively than on Russia's own project of lunar exploration.
Russia is planning to finalize the selection of instruments, which will comprise the scientific payload aboard the stationary Luna-Resource lander.
Confirming the existence of lunar water became important for planetary scientists in the 1990s, after a U.S. probe found signs of water ice around the lunar pose.
If water is found on the moon then it would provide a major imperative if humans ever attempt to establish a habitable base on the Moon.
According to Zakharov, a drill mechanism could penetrate as deep as 3 feet below the surface of the Moon, and with some luck achieve the pioneering feat of "touching" lunar water.
Russian and Indian scientists will be working to carefully select landing sites for the mission in order to increase the chances of capturing water on the moon.
The lunar South Pole had already been singled out as a possible target for finding water ice close to the surface.
The selection process could be facilitated by data from India's first lunar mission "Chandrayaan - 1," which orbited the Moon in 2008.
Zakharov told BBC that landing at the poles of the Moon could be arranged so that it ensures the largely uninterrupted communications of the spacecraft with ground control.
The Moon's polar regions are largely an enigma to scientists, because previous lunar landings were limited to equatorial and middle latitudes.
The Luna Resource mission could improve the understanding of the Moon's internal composition and its orbital movements with the help of a seismometer and a laser reflector.
A radio beacon, which could facilitate lunar landings for future missions, is on the short list of potential payloads. Zakharov said that up to 10 scientific instruments could be placed aboard the lender
The Luna-Resource is expected to make a maximum use of scientific hardware, which had already been developed for exploration of the Martian Moon.
The Russian space agency expects that many of its traditional partners would consider participating in the new mission.
"We do talk to our usual partners in France, Germany, Sweden and other countries and we are counting on that," Zakharov told BBC.