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The Moon May Soon Become a Stargazer

The Moon May Soon Become a Stargazer

In just a few short years, there may be an actual eye on the face of the Moon -- a lunar telescope installed on a mountain top. Its purpose will not be limited to looking down fondly on Earth's children, though. It will make astrophysical observations of the galaxy, Moon, Earth, Sun and stars. It will allow citizen science to be conducted on the lunar surface as never before.

The International Lunar Observatory Association and Moon Express have definitively announced the first mission to the Moon's south pole, tentatively scheduled for 2016.

It will involve delivering the International Lunar Observatory to Malapert Mountain, a roughly 3-mile-high rise on the surface of the Malapert lunar crater, to conduct astronomical observations and communications with Earth.

The International Lunar Observatory will be delivered by Moon Express to a Malapert Mountain site near the Moon's South Pole for galaxy/astronomy observation and communication.

The robotic lander from Moon Express will also explore the area for mineral resources and water, traces of which have been found there by lunar probes.

The Final Frontier

"Our primary customer for this mission, the [International Lunar Observatory], has its own value proposition," Moon Express cofounder and CEO Bob Richards told TechNewsWorld.

"Moon Express will utilize about 50 percent of the lander capacity to deliver other payloads on a non-interference basis that will meet our business models of profitability," he noted.

"The time is right for private landers on the Moon," remarked Erik Asphaug, the Ronald Greeley Chair of Planetary Science at Arizona State University.

"There is cash floating around, and a growing recognition that someday one of these companies is going to win big once a pipeline for lunar resources is opened up," Asphaug continued. "It is limited only by the human imagination."

More About the Mission to Malapert

The International Lunar Observatory has a 2-meter dish antenna. It will conduct astrophysical observations and broadcast findings back to Earth, which will be available on the Internet.

The ILO-X lunar telescope is a shoebox-sized apparatus weighing about 4.4 lbs. It uses optical technology, advanced software and microminiaturized electronics. The telescope was demonstrated at the Singularity University/Fox Studios "Backstage Pass to the Future" event held in Los Angeles in June.

The lander that Moon Express will use is the descendant of one it developed jointly with NASA. Moon Express was awarded an R&D contract by NASA in 2010.

The Dark Side of the Moon

The Moon's south pole is "extremely hazardous with mountains and vast craters," Moon Express's Richards said. "Our robotic lander will need to use new autonomous precision landing and hazard avoidance technologies to land safely."

However, Malapert Mountain's peak is always lying within sight of the Earth, and its back side lies within the radio shadow of the planet, meaning the radio noise would be blocked, making it easier to transmit data back to Earth.

The mission will target Malapert's so-called "peak of eternal light" where solar energy and Earth communications are almost constant, which will allow a mission life of several years without maintenance, Richards explained.

"The fact that [Malapert Mountain] is in sunlight almost all the time means that a lander can be operated in real time from home," Arizona State's Asphaug told TechNewsWorld. "It is also in continuous microwave visibility to Earth, so the landing site can be operated in real time from home ... greatly reducing the operation's cost and complexity."

Further, the location is close to regoliths on the dark and the sunlit sides of Malapert, which "are at the top of the list of resources," Asphaug continued. "So they've picked the right spot."

Money Talks

Objections to locating a telescope on the Moon focus on money. Opponents contend existing ground-based experiments will serve at a fraction of the cost.

A lunar lander will cost at least $100 million, estimated Arizona State's Asphaug.

That doesn't deter Moon Express, however.

"Like any business, our main challenges are finance, markets, products and attracting amazing people to our staff," Richards said.

Moon Express will launch its first mission to the Moon in late 2015, carrying "a number of commercial and government payloads" in a bid to win the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize challenge for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon.


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