As Moon exploration looms larger among the growing community of scientists and engineers from Europe, India, China, Japan, and the United States, a robotic lunar village is gaining support, leading to a permanent human presence on the Moon by 2024.

"A new lunar decade has begun," states a declaration crafted by the member nations who participated in a major lunar conference held last week in Udaipur, India. That gathering held November 22-26 involved some 200 scientists from 17 countries, with experts focusing on new and planned missions to the Moon as well as plotting out concepts for long term exploration of the Moon and utilization of lunar resources.

"We acknowledge that fundamental science questions about the Moon remain to be addressed," said the declaration issued at the meeting's close. "Not only to understand the early history of the Earth/Moon system and its current environment, but also to acquire knowledge for the next steps of exploration and human utilization,"

Fleet of new missions

The meeting was timely considering a new arrival on the lunar exploration scene: Europe's SMART-1 spacecraft is now looping the Moon, prepared to survey the lunar landscape in earnest early next year and work is underway in India on its Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe. Japan and China are also set to launch their respective spacecraft to the Moon in future years.

Meanwhile, in the United States, NASA is moving forward on a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and is considering a proposed dual lunar lander dubbed Moonrise.

The International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon (ICEUM-6) was hosted by India's Physical Research Laboratory and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Co-sponsors of the meeting were the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG) and the European Space Agency, along with Canada's Optech Incorporated and Space Age Publishing Company, based in Hawaii.

Science agenda

The ICEUM-6 declaration cites key scientific rationales for lunar exploration:

  • Of prime importance is formation and evolution of the terrestrial planets, including the origin of the Moon.
  • Central to lunar exploration understanding the impact history at one Astronomical Unit (AU) -- the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun -- including the absolute timing of early events such as the giant basins on the Moon.
  • A major unknown is also the internal structure of the Moon, both its geophysical and compositional properties.
  • The Moon is a natural laboratory for studying the interaction with the space environment, together with the products produced such as those deposited at the lunar poles - perhaps in the form of water ice.       

A lunar exploration program, the Udaipur Declaration observes, must later include advanced orbital instruments as well as on-the-spot analyses from several surface stations and targeted sample return.

That being the case, the statement urges "broad and open discussion and coordination for selections of landing sites to optimize the science return and benefit for exploration."

"We believe that exploration and utilization of the Moon will bring global benefits to human kind as well as serve national needs, and we recommend an international plan for implementation," the ICEUM-6 declaration states.

Permanent presence: 2024

The participants at the lunar meeting in India endorsed an ILEWG stepwise approach, starting with joint science analysis from ongoing precursor missions launched by Europe, Japan, China, India, and the United States.

Those lunar programs would continue with "lunar landers cooperating into an international lunar robotic village before 2014", evolving technologies for human-tended missions that prepare the ground for an "effective, affordable human lunar exploration and permanent presence by 2024."

An upshot from the Moon meeting in India is the urging of space agencies around the world to study and coordinate international lunar infrastructures and assets. These include: telecommunication, navigation, logistics, and a "lunar internet" - all necessary technological ingredients for an effective lunar exploration.

"We encourage space agencies to coordinate and integrate their plans in a robust international Moon-Mars roadmap in coordination with the ILEWG roadmap, where the partners can identify their contribution for an effective implementation using their skills," the Declaration explains.

Revisit the "Moon Treaty"

The Udaipur Declaration specifically recommends several steps: Coordination of international efforts for the establishment of "standards" to facilitate lunar exploitation and settlement -- e.g., use of the metric system; well-characterized lunar soil simulants (materials that mimic properties of true lunar regolith); common data formats and instrument interfaces, as well as frequency and power needs, and urges establishment of a standard lunar geodetic network.

Lastly, the statement recommends that the 1979 "Moon Treaty" be "revisited, refined, and revised as necessary in light of the present-day impetus for expeditions, both robotic and human, to the Moon by several nations."

The next ILEWG International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon will be a focused conference held in Montreal, Canada next year. A full International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon will be held in China in 2006.