The 2m (7ft) long Ladee is equipped with three instruments to sample lunar dust as well as a neat new laser communications system. This will be used to send data back to Earth encoded in beams of light rather than radio waves, massively increasingly bandwidth. If successful, this technology could revolutionise space communications.
The Ladee mission is also significant because it is part of a wider trend of renewed interest in lunar science. Over the last few years there have been a record number of spacecraft in orbit around the Moon at the same time. And unlike the last big push to reach our nearest neighbour, this is not primarily about planting a flag but investigating some fundamental science.
“The Moon is a far more fascinating place than we had previously thought,” says Day. “There’s a lot more going on there than we previously realised. This is not a geologically dead, airless, totally dry world.”
‘Living and breathing’
Lunar scientists are even revisiting theories about the Moon’s formation. Until last year, it was widely accepted that it was formed 4.5 billion years ago from the debris of a collision between a theoretical planet-sized object and the infant Earth. A new theory, from Nasa’s Lunar Science Institute, suggests the Earth and Moon might have resulted from a collision between two massive planets, each five times the size of Mars.
“The Moon was born interesting and it has continued to be interesting over the past four billion years,” says Elphic. “The Moon is still living and breathing.”
Ladee is currently scheduled for launch in August and I wonder whether this ratcheting up of lunar exploration is a step towards returning humans to the Moon. China has certainly made clear its ambitions to land on the Moon and possibly establish a manned settlement but what about the United States?
I always expect diplomatic answers from Nasa employees with this question, particularly as a human mission to the Moon is not currently on the agency’s agenda. But Day says the Moon would be a logical choice for a next small step for mankind. “As we start looking at the further destinations [such as Mars], these are hard places to go to but we can refine our techniques and technologies by going to the Moon.”
Elphic agrees, “Building a base, dealing with the possibilities of in-situ resources that you could use to make fuel or oxygen to breathe, doing this at the Moon makes sense even if your destination is Mars and beyond. Solve all the difficult problems in a place that’s relatively easy to get to and then move on from there.”
As the discoveries from this recent flurry of missions are proving, the Moon would certainly be worth a visit.