If you’re a space geek you’re aware that China has a lunar probe and rover active on the Moon right now. If you haven’t watched the video of the landing you can find it here. A pretty fast drop to the surface but, what the heck, everything seems to be working—the Jade Rabbit rover deployed and is busy checking out the Sea of Rains. The Chang'e-3 spacecraft follows a couple of preparatory fly-by missions by China, and lots of fly-bys by other countries over the past decades, but it’s the first landing since the Russian Luna 24 in 1976. That’s quite a long time between actual visits. Yet it’s just the beginning of a resurgence: missions over the coming decade include a joint Russia/Sweden/Switzerland lander set for 2016, a lander and rover from India in 2017, a lander and rover from Japan in 2018, and a U.S. venture also in 2018 with help from Canada and Japan. Those are just the government projects. We shouldn’t discount the Google Lunar X-Prize competition which will give $20 million to the first private team that successfully lands a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface and sends back some meaningful data. So far, one of the leading contenders is a company called Astrobotic, which plans to deliver a lander there in 2015.
Why the renewed interest in that big ball of dust hanging in the sky? (Now that we know it’s not made of cheese, it can’t be because of a shortage of fancy salad dressing). One possible answer lies in the reasons behind yet another lunar rover project tentatively scheduled for 2018. That one’s from the Shackleton Energy Company, expressly formed in 2007 to get into the business of mining the Moon. Their plan appears to be to harvest significant deposits of ice and/or extract oxygen from lunar rocks to free up gases that can be used as fuel. After all, any further development of the Moon and certainly any exploitation of the rest of the solar system will require a lot of fuel, and the stuff is very expensive to haul up all the way from the Earth’s surface.
Ultimately, the other missions are likely about mining the Moon’s resources, too. China has indicated that they’re especially interested in so called rare earths—minerals that are essential to a whole list of technologies from lasers to X-ray machines to PET scanners and more. They’re not easy to come by in commercial quantities. China is already the largest supplier and has been cutting back on exports, causing worldwide concern.
So it’s not some romantic notion of making inroads into the final frontier, or even the hunt for a big black buried monolith from an alien race that is drawing human interest back to the Moon. It’s money—plain and simple. But then, the end of the Apollo missions should have taught us that national vanity and ideological competition aren’t enough over the long haul.