Report from International Astronautical Conference Highlights Russia’s Vision for Space

When the United States dropped out of the ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency last year, ESA invited Russia to become its partner. Now, as the U.S. also has no firm plans for lunar exploration, Europe and Russia are teaming up for a multi-mission effort to explore the Moon together.

At the International Astronautical Congress, recently held in Naples, Italy, mission scientists and planners from Europe and Russia have been outlining their plans. Russia will launch its first Luna-Glob mission in 2015, which will include a small lander, to develop soft landing techniques. Lunar-Glob 2 will launch in 2016, and will consist of an orbiter. The Luna-Resource mission will place a more capable lander on the Moon, to allow the verification of the ability to land a large platform, do in situ analysis, acquire a sample of lunar soil -- all prerequisite to the next step -- returning lunar samples to Earth. This step, now in the planning stage, will be a joint Russia-Europe project. The European Space Agency hopes to gain approval at the ESA Ministerial meeting next month, to go forward with the European Lunar Lander project. This would launch in 2018 and land at the south pole of the Moon. It would provide the "ground truth" for the orbital observations of water ice at the lunar pole. But most scientists believe that analysis in Earth laboratories is necessary to do precise investigations, so the joint step would be a Lunar Polar Sample Return. This would be targetted for the 2020 time frame and consist of a number of elements, including landers, rovers to collect samples, and sample return stages. Not since the Russian Luna sample return missions decades ago has lunar soil been brought back to Earth. And this would be the first mission to investigate the lunar poles.

The occasion of the annual International Astronautical Congress gave Russia's top space experts the opportunity to present a variety of challenging proposals for the future of space exploration. Alexander Derechin, Deputy Director of the Energia Space Corporation, formerly the Design Bureau established by Soviet space pioneer, S.P. Korolov, presented an array of possibilities for the development of space infrastructure, including unmanned and manned capabilities at the Lagrange points between the Earth and the Moon. At these locations, the gravitational balance between the two bodies is such that almost no energy is required to keep a spacecraft in orbit. From these gravitational balance points, a minimal amount of energy is needed to go anywhere else.

Derechin proposed that the next-generation space infrastructure should include a space station smaller than the ISS, needed especially for human space physiology and medical experiments, but that there should be a "cloud" of smaller stations, manned only periodically for maintenance and upgrading, and optimized for a specific function, such as astronomy, geophysics studies, materials research, etc. At the Lagrange point, Derechin said, man-tended infrastructure would create the basis for future manned missions, regardless of the destination that is chosen. In general, he stressed, the goal should be to create infrastructure that is "adaptable to any scenario."

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