A string of robot spacecraft will shoot for the Moon within the next two years, departing from Japan, China, India, as well as the United States.

This multi-nation collection of science sensors and exploration gear will provide an extraordinary look at Earth's only natural satellite, setting the stage for a human return.

Four independent space probes are being readied for a lob toward lunar orbit: Japan's SELENE; China's Chang'E 1, India's Chandrayaan 1 and the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency's (ESA) SMART-1, already in orbit around the Moon, will be wrapping up its mission soon.

The data churned out from the flotilla will be significant, helping to shape a planned International Lunar Decade. Steps are now being taken to better coordinate and exchange data gleaned by the upcoming volley of lunar orbiters.

Real collaborations

Nearly 250 Moon planners, along with hundreds of students from 18 nations met July 23-27 in Beijing, China to hammer out what's dubbed the "Lunar Beijing Declaration," a document issued by the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG).

ILEWG is a public forum sponsored by the world's space agencies to support international cooperation towards a world strategy for the exploration and utilization of the Moon.

"What is new in the Lunar Beijing Declaration, is that de facto we are entering in an era with a permanent robotic presence around the Moon and then on the Moon," Bernard Foing, Executive Director of ILEWG, told SPACE.com. After intense and constructive discussions during the splinter groups, the declaration was approved unanimously by the participants, he said.

Foing said that in evidence at the 8th ILEWG gathering were "real collaborations" between the teams of upcoming lunar missions.

Foing said that ESA's SMART-1 opens the way for a flotilla of at least four lunar orbiters to be launched in 2007 and 2008, followed by impactors, penetrators, landers and rovers. The task ahead, he said, is to build upon the SMART-1 legacy of data and experience towards future missions.

"Experts are looking to define standards for data exchange and lunar spacecraft intercommunications," Foing said. "We want to make use of the upcoming International Lunar Decade to prepare effectively [for] the global exploration of the Moon and for the future human outposts and bases."

Set of actions

Based on the deliberations and opinions of ILEWG participants, the new Lunar Beijing Declaration endorsed a set of measures.

A number of actions, it was affirmed, can be of long-term mutual benefit, given the fact that the first phase of new lunar exploration is centered on remote-sensing observations, such as:

  • Coordinate and validate data sets produced by different instruments carried by the various lunar orbiters to enhance the usefulness of information acquired;
  • Pick a small number of specific targets on the Moon's surface to facilitate both the cross-calibration of different instruments and to train young explorers in lunar science issues. After initial calibration, data should be made available for coordinated analyses by the international community;
  • Make available as quickly as feasible all solar monitor data from lunar orbital missions. Cross-correlation of this information will enrich calibration of all the instruments dependent on knowledge of solar fluxes;
  • Lunar mission teams are encouraged to archive final mission data products in a Planetary Data System-compatible form. Doing so would standardize formats of data for international access;
  • Establish a standard for S-band spacecraft communication, with potential for common tracking operations and backup support to other missions, if necessary;
  • Modern-era lunar mission that overlap in coverage and data acquired from archived Apollo and Soviet-era Moon information would benefit by cross-checking of data sets.

Impact events

The Lunar Beijing Declaration also made note of several human-made impacts on the Moon.

In fact, European Space Agency engineers and controllers have nudged their SMART-1 lunar orbiter-now entering the final months of its Moon survey work-to strike towards the lunar nearside on Sept. 3.

Following SMART-1's purposeful crash landing, other impact events and probes are to be follow, staged by India, the United States and Japan.

Impacts of these lunarcraft, the declaration suggests, should be coordinated with other space missions. Ground-based and space-based measurements are encouraged for near-side events. All of the planned four orbital missions are asked to observe the SMART-1 impact site. Furthermore, before, after, and real-time measurements should be planned by all spacecraft that are in orbit as spacecraft of other nations hit the Moon.

Lunar networks

To strengthen exchange between lunar experts and to enhance collaboration, the declaration recommends that international science and space organizations join in and support the International Lunar Decade.

Called out in the document is a subsequent phase dubbed the "Lunar Global Robotic Village" prior to renewed human exploration of the Moon.

Need for a Global Moon Navigation and Positioning System is foreseen, along with joint infrastructure for data relay, creation of a lunar Internet, in addition to landed surface beacons. So too is the necessity for improved monitoring of all natural hazards on the Moon, for example, radiation, meteorite impacts and shallow moonquakes.

The period 2010-2015 is pointed to in the declaration as a unique opportunity for interested agencies and research groups to set up a geophysical network of instruments on the Moon - akin to Earth seismology, magnetism and environmental-sensing networks.

"The importance of protecting the Moon becomes more urgent than ever before, as we enter a decade with many planned lunar exploration missions, including orbiters, impactors, penetrators and landers," the declaration states. "We encourage space agencies to give their attention to the protection of the Moon for sustainable exploration, research and utilization. A dedicated task force should be set up to study this issue and produce a recommendation for all future missions."

Moon Image Gallery