On Japan's plans to create a robot-operated moon base by 2020

Friday, May 28, 2010

Today's news here in English and here in Japanese relates to what I've been saying about how the US should eventually have no choice but to begin concentrating on the Moon again (though the manned asteroid visit should be no problem), simply because the Moon is at just the right location whereby other nations (Japan, China, Russia, India) and private industry are able to explore it and I doubt that the US will be content to simply sit by and wait an extra 15 years for a single manned Mars flyby while the rest of the world is constructing and operating bases on the Moon. Wait for it...

As for the plan itself, it would involve sending robots to the south pole where solar energy is plentiful (24 days of light followed by 4 days of darkness) whereby they would then begin constructing a base. Recent experiences with the Mars rovers may lead one to believe that robots are incapable of doing work with any haste, but that is simply due to the large communication delay between here and Mars. On the Moon there is almost no delay at all (about 2.5 seconds there and back) so robots can easily be controlled from Earth, and in fact the Lunokhod rover drove a total of 37 km on the Moon back in 1973.

According to the proposal, the first robots would begin in 2015 by landing on the Moon, investigating and sending high-res images of the surface, as well as using seismometers to determine the interior composition of the Moon. After that in 2020 it would involve setting up a self-sufficient base through these robots which could move about in a 100 km radius, as well as sending back lunar rocks to Earth for analysis.

None of this is actually that difficult to accomplish, since the entire operation would be done robotically and these robots are extremely easy to control from Earth. Not only that, but setting up in the first place is not too difficult either. The rovers sent to Mars for example landed by using an interesting air bag system (inflate to encompass the rover, bounce bounce bounce bounce...then come to a stop, deflate and let the rover out) that would be impossible to use for humans due to the g-forces involved. Also note that since the Moon has (pretty much) no atmosphere any construction done on the Moon by these robots would be permanent. If part of setting up the base involved construction of a flat area for future landings, it would then remain as a permanent structure that anyone could use later on. Construct a habitation suitable for protecting humans from radiation and that would be there forever too.

Expected cost for the base: $2 billion, or less than one-eighth NASA's yearly budget. Or Canada's pitiful CSA budget (double it and I'll stop calling it pitiful) over 6 years.

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