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Private Lunar mission and the future of space tourism
by Zakutnyaya Olga
Moscow, Russia (Voice of Russia) Apr 11, 2012

Besides the landing and traversing the Moon, the rover proposed by Astrobotic Technology will also be used for scientific purposes. It will carry a drill to take core samples and a batch of instruments to search for water ice that presumably hides in the lunar upper subsurface.

Teams from America, Europe and Asia compete for the Google Lunar X-Prize. At stake are $30 mln. The aim is to send privately funded mission to the Moon, to land a robot on its surface able to travel 500 meters and send back to Earth video, images and data. A rover has to reach the Moon before the end of 2015.

New players form agenda for Moon missions
Astrobotic Technology is one of a handful of teams competing for $20 million offered by Google to the first private company that would manage to land the robot rover to the Moon and operate it. Called Google Lunar X-Prize, it was organized by X-Prize Foundation and sponsored by Google in 2007.

Since then, more than 30 teams registered for competition, with 26 active up to date. The only Russian team develops the Selenokhod project. They are motivated by the two successful Soviet expedition to the Moon which delivered the rovers Lunokhod-1 and Lunokhod-2 in 1971 and 1973.

Besides the landing and traversing the Moon, the rover proposed by Astrobotic Technology will also be used for scientific purposes. It will carry a drill to take core samples and a batch of instruments to search for water ice that presumably hides in the lunar upper subsurface.

The spacecraft with the rover will be delivered to the Moon with the help of Falcon 9, the launcher developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (or simply SpaceX), well-known enterprise after it became one of the companies granted a contract under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program that seeks private companies able to develop a cargo vehicle for ISS supply.

Currently SpaceX develops Falcon launcher family that comprises Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and prospective Falcon Heavy able to deliver about 53 tons to low Earth orbit.

While private companies have been largely engaged in space affairs as contractors for state agencies, up until now it were state officials that determined space exploration eventual goals. Still, the situation seems to be gradually changing, both in manned and unmanned space.

The Russian Selenopkhod team consists of young energetic and ambitious engineers, designers and IT specialists, with average age of 27. To deliver their rover to the Moon they propose to use the Dnepr launcher (SS-18), another option is American Falcon-9.

The rover will move on the Moon surface either in automatic mode ore remotely operated from Earth. The Russians decided against both wheels and tracks and chose sky-stepping mover initially developed for the Soviet Mars rovers. The samples would be collected with a bucket fastened to the front part of the rovers.

Apart from Americans and Russians, teams from UK, Germany, India, Malaysia, Chile, Brazil, Romania and Italy compete for the Lunar priority in 2015.

From ISS to suborbital flights
The first breakthrough in the realm of private space flight occurred in 2001 when Dennis Tito, an American multimillionaire flew to the International Space Station as a third member of the crew aboard Russian Soyuz space ship. The first space tourist spent 7 days and successfully returned to the Earth. After that 6 more people flew to the station, some of them carrying out scientific experiments.

However, since the ISS was never meant to be a hotel, options for outsiders' accommodation are rather limited, since the countries operating the ISS need to maintain a strict schedule of cosmonauts and astronauts' rotation that became even tighter after shuttles' retire. Moreover, the price for the Soyuz seat is a bit too high - Tito paid $20 million, while the last tourist flown in 2009 gave $35 million.

Nevertheless, where demand there is is supply and the demand for space is rather high. Even though orbital flights are still too risky for private companies, that do not have previous experience in such activities, sub-orbital flights that deliver the passengers and the cargo at the altitude of about 100 km, 'a border of space', seem more viable.

Several companies developing both the launchers and space ships for sub-orbital flights are currently rivaling to be the first on the market. Moreover, the first private spaceport was announced to be built in New Mexico, the USA, by Virgin Galactic, one of the companies engaged in sub-orbital spacecraft development.

Interestingly, most projects like these are funded by tycoons who do not expect immediate revenues, although they deem the market to be extremely promising. The price of the sub-orbital tour will most likely be around several tens of thousand dollars, and therefore affordable to more customers. And, furthermore, shall new ideas prove viable, they might also be of interest for state bodies and customers that need to deliver their payload to space.

Who cares?
The NASA's program that should ensure delivery of cargos and possibly crews to the ISS is the step both to minimize its own spending on the station maintenance, and to boost works on more powerful launchers able to reach the Moon. However, private space means higher competition as well. Shall new launchers prove less expensive and relatively reliable, current launch market might be seriously re-shaped.

Space science may seem rather non-competitive sphere, but in truth many science teams are struggling for the option to place their instruments onboard a spacecraft, the number of which is painfully limited due to high cost and long time of development.

Shall private companies enter the market with comparable products; the situation might become even worse. By the way, Astrobotic Technologies also plans to sell its prospective rover to national space agencies, shall the project succeed. And the trend is most likely to continue.

Source: Voice of Russia

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