The German space agency’s Nov. 8 announcement that it intends to build and launch a lunar orbiter around 2012 is one of several recent developments that reflect surging interest in Earth’s nearest neighbor. The trend is positive, but Germany’s interest in a solo mission at this time is puzzling.
Just over a year ago, the European Space Agency (ESA), to which Germany is the second largest contributor, completed its first lunar orbiter mission. Smart-1 was not the most complex or expensive of probes, but it put ESA on the map as far as lunar exploration is concerned.
Other space agencies have been busy as well with lunar exploration missions and plans. Japan’s Kaguya mission, consisting of one large spacecraft and two smaller probes, entered lunar orbit in early October. Just over a month later, China’s first planetary probe, Chang’e-1, began orbiting some 200 kilometers above the Moon’s surface.
ESA tracking stations provided support for Chang’e-1, setting the stage, according to one European official, for broader cooperation in space exploration with China. One such opportunity appears to be on the horizon already: the state-owned China Daily newspaper reported recently that China plans to launch a rover to the Moon as early as 2012.
ESA is contributing instruments to India’s first lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, which is scheduled for launch next year. India and Russia just announced plans to collaborate on a follow-on mission that would include an orbiter and rover and would launch in 2013; India has indicated that other space agencies may be invited to contribute instruments.
Finally, NASA’s large Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is intended to scout possible landing sites for the
astronaut visits NASA plans to conduct
starting around 2020, is scheduled to launch in late 2008 or 2009. This might not seem like the best example given that NASA has yet to invite other nations to take major roles in its exploration initiative – something that sooner or later will have to change – but the point is that in terms of science, the Moon is pretty well covered over the next several years.
In fact, NASA says that between the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and various international missions, it expects to have all the data it needs to prepare for human landings.
While ESA is not planning any Moon missions in the coming years, there are plenty of flight opportunities outside the agency for Germany, especially if there’s a particular instrument or technology it wants to fly. In addition to the Chinese and Indo-Russian projects, Britain has a lunar probe on the drawing boards and Japan is studying future missions that would build upon Kaguya.
Clearly not all of the missions being discussed will make it to the launch pad, but international collaboration can increase both the quantity and quality of those that do. For any given mission, substantial participation by a country with Germany’s resources could well mean the
difference between flying and not flying.
Meanwhile, ESA is preparing to ask its member governments to substantially increase their annual contributions to support its developing exploration program for the next several years. These plans include ExoMars, a Mars lander whose projected price tag has grown from 650 million euros ($965 million) to 1 billion euros. A mission of this size and complexity will offer plenty of opportunities to showcase German technology.
ESA officials are concerned that Germany, if it goes through with a lunar orbiter, would have less money available to contribute to European programs. Germany denies this, saying there is no relationship between the two.
Even if this is the case, however, that does not validate the wisdom of spending some 350 million euros on a mission that appears to overlap substantially with other efforts. If national prestige is driving Germany’s plan it could always pick an objective other than the Moon, such as a comet or asteroid. If there is some truly unique lunar science that Germany has in mind, it would do well to seriously consider all opportunities for international collaboration before forging ahead with its own mission.