Tuesday, March 16, 2010

China Considers Returning Moon Rocks to Earth Lab

A Moon Rock retrieved by Apollo 16 astronaut John Young in 1972.

Space.com reports:

China is mulling plans for a facility to handle returning moon rock samples as part of a step-by-step plan to explore the lunar surface with robotic probes.

China's multi-step program calls for lunar orbiters to scout the moon, followed by a soft landing on of the surface using an automated lunar rover to reconnoiter the crater-pocked landscape. That rover would then be followed by the touchdown of a lunar lander to collect bits and pieces of the moon and rocket them back to Earth for detailed analysis by Chinese specialists.

The United States, of course, returned moon rocks on six manned missions between 1969 and 1972. According to the article, China's robotic lunar sampling mission would occur in 2017, 45 years after the last Apollo mission.

I found particularly interesting this passage near the end of the article:

Ray Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, also commented on China's lunar exploration ambitions.

"Planning and implementing the lunar sample receiving lab is a logical part of the aggressive Chinese program for lunar exploration," Arvidson said. He told SPACE.com that China's current plans, as he understood them, are to launch another lunar orbiter, then a robotic lunar rover, and then move onto a robotic lunar sample return mission.

"In addition they have started participating in discussions for the International Lunar Network (ILN) mission. And there is discussion of having a launch and deep space transfer capability to Mars for robotic missions by 2013," Arvidson added.

NASA is leading the ILN idea, a concept whereby landed stations on the moon from multiple countries serve as nodes to collectively form a large geophysical network of scientific instruments.

The Obama administration has encouraged global cooperation on extraterrestrial missions as a means of reducing the cost. If China opts into International Lunar Network, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.

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