GOLDEN, Colo. — A cooperative deal has been inked between a U.S. group and China to use that country’s Moon lander to conduct astronomical imaging from the lunar surface.

The International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA), a nonprofit based in Kamuela, Hawaii, has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Beijing-based National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. A signing ceremony took place in Kamuela Sept. 4.

The deal is the first such U.S.-China collaboration centered on using China’s Chang’e 3 Moon lander scheduled for launch next year.

Dedicated to astronomical research and public education, China’s National Astronomical Observatories hosts the Lunar and Planetary Research Center and is the institute responsible for the ultraviolet lunar telescope to be carried onboard the Chang’e 3 lander. That instrument will be operated by the China National Space Administration’s Chinese Lunar Exploration Program.

The Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 lunar orbiters were launched by China in 2007 and 2010, respectively. The most recent orbiter cranked out a detailed map of the Moon’s surface, including the landing zone picked for the rover-carrying Chang’e 3 lander — Chinese Lunar Exploration Program.


Natural progression

“I’ve been visiting China observatories and astronomy facilities like [the National Astronomical Observatories] for about 15 years, so this memorandum of understanding has been a natural progression,” Steve Durst, ILOA founding director, said in an interview.

This science collaboration will be part of a mission that aims to conduct the first soft, controlled landing of any spacecraft on the Moon in almost 40 years, Durst said in a press statement. It will be the first program to conduct astronomical imaging from the Moon’s landscape, he said.

ILOA and its Space Age Publishing Co. affiliate co-sponsor educational initiatives and international forums to provide increased global awareness of space science, exploration and enterprise, Durst said.

Forums are held in California’s Silicon Valley, Canada, China, India, Japan, Europe, Africa, Hawaii, Kansas and New York. Current plans, Durst said, are for expansion to South America, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Antarctica through 2014.

“We’re optimistic that resulting Space Age USA-People’s Republic of China-international interaction should be very productive for all,” Durst said. The deal struck involved a big effort, he said, calling it “hopefully quite significant and historic.”


Google Lunar X Prize

Durst said the cooperative agreement calls for China’s National Astronomical Observatories to receive observing time on the ILO-X and ILO-1 mission instruments — science gear that is part of the International Lunar Observatory Association’s work with Moon Express, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company vying to win the Google Lunar X Prize  by becoming the first privately funded team to send a robot to the Moon.

In a July statement, Moon Express said it has designed and is building ILO-X as the first independently developed astronomical telescope that will operate on the Moon, looking out at the galaxy and heavens beyond and back at the Earth.

About the size of a shoe box, ILO-X will use leading-edge optical and imaging technology to deliver dramatic and inspiring deep-sky pictures of galactic and extragalactic objects, according to Moon Express co-founder and chief executive Bob Richards.

ILO-1 is the primary ILOA mission under development by Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA Corp. to land a multifunctional 2-meter dish at the Moon’s south pole to conduct astronomical observation and commercial communications activities.

Regarding the newly signed memorandum of understanding, Durst said: “Of course, I’m both amazed and sad that there’s no American lander operating on the Moon too … public, private, any kind,” Durst said. He called the Moon’s south pole “the next new frontier.”

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...