Since everybody is talking about the moon again...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I'm sure nobody reading this is unaware of the fact that Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died yesterday. There is some hand wringing and soul searching going on as a result on whether the US has lived up to the ideals of the 1960s or Armstrong's ideals, and even whether the US will get astronauts to the moon (or even out of Low Earth Orbit) before the remaining population of people that have walked on the moon have passed away.

For this I have one easy piece of advice: send a rover to the surface. A manned mission is beyond us (us = humanity) at the moment, but unmanned craft do a much better job than they did in the 1960s and 1970s, and the next best thing to walking on the surface is seeing a robot do it - see the excitement generated by Curiosity which is certainly not the first craft to the surface of Mars. A rover on the moon would be even easier to build and control: navigation can be done in more or less real time (1.3 seconds to send a signal there, 1.3 seconds back) with even less of a delay than that seen between two reporters talking to each other from opposite sides of the world. Nuclear power would not be necessary because sunlight is plentiful and the day is 14 days long - the rover would only need the ability to survive the long night.

Luckily there are two possibilities for this at the moment: China's Chang'e 3 and the Google Lunar X Prize. But the moon is huge, and success is never guaranteed, so a third or fourth possibility would not hurt. Such a mission would cost a few hundred million dollars, about a tenth to a quarter that of the Curiosity rover.

Once we get our first images of the surface since the 1970s we will finally be able to determine whether the lack of public interest in the moon is due to 1) actually not having any interest in it, or 2) simply not having seen it up close for so long and kind of viewing it as a done deal.


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