It's closer than Mars

Why the next decade’s hot space race revolves around the moon

If China’s just-launched Chang’e 3 lunar probe (quaintly known as the Jade Rabbit) drops its robotic rover down on the Moon’s surface in mid-December as scheduled, it will be the first soft landing on our nearest celestial neighbor in 37 years. It also kicks off a resurgence of interest in putting people and hardware down on the Moon, and the beginning of a new wave of robotic visits to test, trawl, drill, and construct there in decades ahead.

After the Jade Rabbit, Russia is due to be next on the Moon if it can keep a 2015 launch date for Luna-Glob, twice delayed already due to budget constraints. That probe is supposed to be the precursor to development of a robotic lunar base, according to Roscosmos, which has called for a doubling of space efforts by 2020 after a stretch of lean years. China’s post-Chang’e 3 roadmap calls for additional landers, Chang’e 4 and 5, to reach the Moon in 2015 and 2017, the latter to establish what it calls “automatic patrols on the Moon.” While it plans to fly back lunar samples by 2017, it hasn’t set a date for manned missions. And as of August of this year, the Indian Space Research organization (ISRO) set a strategy to reach the Moon with its probe alone, following the redesign of its Russian launch partner’s strategy after the 2011 Phobos-Grunt disaster in which Russia and China both lost unmanned spacecraft.

Back in 1976, the Soviet Luna 24 lander successfully made the journey to the moon. It was the last of the Soviet and American landers and designed-to-crash “impacters,” all of which had been peppering the cratered surface of the Moon since 1964. This long lunar lull coincided with a surge in flights to Mars in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s as the US, Soviet Union, Japan, Britain and European Space Agency (ESA) fired more targets at the red planet, bypassing the Moon as a stepping stone to deeper exploration. Here’s why a growing list of nations and, in this phase, commercial ventures, are looking at the Moon as an attractive target again:

1. We can see the post-International Space Station (ISS) era from here. Having already pushed five years past its initial planned operation, the ISS, designed as an international platform for space science co-operated by NASA, Roscosmos, the ESA, and Japanese and Canadian space agencies, is now set to operate until 2020. Some have even discussed pushing it to 2028 before de-orbiting the space station. Either way, national programs see the writing on the wall, and, with the time needed to plan and fund new missions, space scientists and politicians alike have to be looking to the next big thing. China and some private companies are even looking into building their own space stations.

2. While all space exploration is risky, the Moon represents less risk overall. At a time when national budgets are tight and taxpayers are in no mood for extravagant spending, refocusing on potentially cheaper, more accessible targets we’ve already reached may seem like a more prudent mission for mature space programs like those of Russia and the US. It’s also a good first hop for newly emerging national programs.

3. Robotics are improving, on Earth and in space. Here on the ground, we are putting robotics into an astounding array of applications, and even into some fairly ludicrous ones. The Mars robotic rovers have proven to be highly successful, and there’s even been two Robonauts aboard the ISS. Both government and commercial programs see robotics as a way to get more done on the Moon without having to risk human lives, spend money training astronauts, or ferrying large numbers of them to the lunar surface. And robotic workers can potentially reproduce on the Moon (PDF) without the fanfare and potential discomfort.

4. Commercial competition begets more commercial competition. We’ve already seen this in the low-Earth orbit business where a half-dozen companies have already put combined billions into developing, launching and testing spacecraft. Beyond names like Elon Musks’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Xcor and Bigelow Space, there are dozens of other companies joining the fray. A new London Economics study (PDF) estimates a $1.9 billion near-term, and potentially $6.4 billion long-term, market opportunity in hardware, systems, and launch capabilities alone. Add valuable minerals and other resources that can be extracted from the Moon, and the potential returns look better than a lot of what’s available on Earth. The ominously named Shackleton Energy Company, based in Texas, has plans to extract hydrogen and oxygen from ice on the Moon and convert it to fuel to top up spacecraft from low-Earth orbit. Pair this with dozens of teams around the world competing for the $40 million on offer for Google’s Lunar X-Prize to put a successful rover on the Moon by the end of 2015, and the ingredients for Moon Rush are in place.

5. It’s there—as in just 240,000 miles away. Unlike asteroids, other planets, comets or distant moons, the Moon is about as predictable as a heavenly body gets. It doesn’t rotate, it stays at known distances, and we’ve studied it more heavily than any other object in space. Its fixed position makes the economics of reaching, returning from, communicating with, and shuttling items to and from its surface a relatively known quantity by comparison. Because of this, companies like Japan’s Shimizu can contemplate building a solar array on the Moon to supply the Earth with power, as outlandish as the plan seems.

6. “Moonshots” are iconic ways to reboot or express ambitions of national innovation. Google doesn’t use the term “moonshot” for its big projects by accident. For the US and Russia in particular, past lunar glories are powerful symbols of national competitiveness, and for countries like China and India, they represent important next steps in achieving national technology status. Aiming for the Moon is like a starter badge for further space exploration.

7. The Moon is a great place to put your vaporware. The Moon may lack gravity, but it is a magnet for a variety of grandiose schemes. Aside from Newt Gingrich’s quadrennial calls for a US moonbase, both government and private inventors have used the Moon as their canvas for what academic researcher and writer Paul Graham Raven calls “infrastructure fiction,” or speculative engineering designs that provoke imagination and particular visions of the future. Shimizu’s solar belt is one such vision, but they also look like NASA and the European Space Agency’s call to 3D-print lunar bases from lunar soil. Some of these plans may come to fruition, but sticking anything on the Moon makes it sound just crazy enough to be possible.

You can follow Scott on Twitter at @Changeist. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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