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Space Race reloaded: will Russia send cosmonauts to the moon?

Russia is no stranger to ambitious space exploration – and has produced several notable firsts. Maxim Shipenkov/ EPA

For decades, the Soviet Union was a major player in the exploration of space, famously locking horns with the US in the “Space Race” – a competition for orbital supremacy and solar system exploration throughout the mid to late 20th century.

Now, Russia appears to have plans to recover its past glory. According to a leaked document from the national space agency Roscosmos to the country’s government, Russia is planning to develop a network of research facilities on Mars, a manned mission to the moon and probes to Venus and Jupiter, all by the year 2030. The plan is to increase the country’s share of the global space market, from 0.5% last year to 10% by 2030.

Achieving all of these aims in less than two decades would seem to be an ambitious undertaking, but it’s worth remembering Russia is no stranger to ambitious space projects.

Sure, your first thoughts of space exploration are probably of NASA missions but let’s not forget the USSR had several significant victories throughout the Space Race.

Russian firsts

The USSR launched the very first satellite – Sputnik – in 1957, and launched the first person into space – Yuri Gargarin aboard Vostok 1 – in 1961.

During the 1970s the Soviet Union succeeded brilliantly with robotic missions to the moon, managing to return samples to Earth. And in 1975, the Soviet satellite Venera 9 returned the first image of the surface of Venus.

But all of these successes were arguably trumped by NASA with its far-bolder, more scientifically successful manned missions – especially the Apollo program.

It must be galling for Russians that their nation’s past successes are obscured behind more recent achievements by the USA.

But it’s not all bad news for the Russians. Were it not for cosmonauts, there would be no crew access to the International Space Station – a US-dominated endeavour. And no other nation has the heavy-lift rockets required to return to the moon.

Space on standby

The global financial crisis crippled the NASA exploration program, with long-planned missions to Mars cancelled.

Gone is the planned 2018 mission that could have told us whether the methane in the Martian atmosphere is an indicator of life beyond Earth.

Gone is the 2022 mission that would have returned samples from the surface of Mars – long the goal of geologists such as myself.

As well as frustrating the scientific community, these cancellations have angered the European Space Agency (ESA) with which these missions were jointly planned.

But space exploration enthusiasts shouldn’t despair. For a start, the above missions might still go ahead, albeit without US involvement.

Also, pro-space lobbyists in the US are influential. The Planetary Society can mobilise thousands of people worldwide. More significantly, the US aerospace industry can point to economic benefits, employment and national prestige – worthy aims, with a side-effect of helping the re-election chances of politicians whose electorates comprise this and other related industries.

It has been said that every dollar invested in space exploration returns US$8 of economic benefit. It is impossible for mere mortals to verify such calculations, but one hopes they are correct.

Back to the moon?

One of the most interesting aspects of Russia’s leaked plans is the apparent desire to head to the moon. Why, after so many years, would the Russians want to return to the moon?

Well, for a start, there is a strong scientific case.

The moon provides us with a real insight into the history of our solar system. The cratering history of the moon is calibrated primarily by dates determined on samples returned by the Apollo astronauts.

From there, crater counts on the rocky planets allow estimations of the age of planetary landscapes. Determining planetary history relies on those estimates.

But this whole edifice is shaky because there are few dated samples and it is not clear whether these samples are representative of the moon as a whole.

In other words, the clock is dodgy. More samples could help immeasurably.

There are other good reasons for a return to the moon:

  • it would be great to have radio and optical telescopes on the dark side of the moon, away from earthly interference (such as city lights) and from the interference of our atmosphere (known as “telluric contamination”).

  • we should prepare for travel to Mars by returning to the moon. We could even use the moon as a way-station to Mars.

  • we could mine the moon for Helium-3, which could theoretically be used for fusion power.

Another intriguing possibility is that there might be rocks on the surface of the moon, ejected from Earth by asteroid impacts more than four billion years ago.

No such rocks have survived on Earth, as far as we know, because plate tectonics and mountain building have reworked and destroyed such ancient rocks. As a result we know little about the first half-billion years of our planet’s history. We might find that remaining history on the moon.

Will the plans outlined in the leaked Roscosmos document come to fruition? Who knows – but the benefits of space exploration, whichever country leads it, are huge: inspiration, discovery and knowledge.

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