Once again, lunar exploration is a primary concern of the world's space agencies. Photo: Getty Images
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Japan joins list of nations planning on covering the Moon in robots over the next five years

The next five years will see a resurgence in lunar exploration, driven both by idealism and an economic incentive.

Japan’s space agency, Jaxa, has announced that it’s going to send an unmanned lander to the Moon in 2018, CNN reports:

This is an initial step and a lot of procedures are still ahead before the plan is formally approved," a Jaxa spokesperson told reporters.

If it is approved, the agency will reportedly use its Epsilon solid-fuel rocket technology to carry and deploy a "Slim" probe -- the acronym stands for "Smart Lander for Investigating Moon" -- on the surface of the celestial body.

Japanese media estimates that the mission will cost in the region of ¥10 billion to ¥15 billion ($83.4 million - $125 million). Jaxa spokesperson Chihito Onda confirmed to CNN that this estimate is realistic.

The Moon had best start dusting and vacuuming now, as the next few years are going to be a busy one - plenty of robots from Earth are planning to drop in for a visit.

Russia will be sending four (and one orbiter) between 2018 and 2025, as part of the repeatedly-delayed Luna-Glob mission. The plan is to gather data that'll prove useful in eventually building a lunar base sometime in the 2030s, but that should still be seen as a very tentative goal - but somewhat less tentative is China's Chang'e 4 and 5 rovers, both expected to launch sometime before 2020, as part of China's dedicated push towards landing humans on the Moon before 2030. (A Chang'e 6 might even squeeze in there before 2020 as well.)

India's ISRO has Chandrayaan-2 - featuring an orbiter, a lander and a rover - scheduled for launch sometime in late 2016 or early 2017, as a sequel to Chandrayaan-1, which successfully fired a probe into a crater near the Moon's south pole in November 2008. Then there are also the private space organisations planning missions to the surface of our nearest neighbour, most notably the entrants in Google's Lunar X Prize, which offers $20m to any group which can land a robotic rover on the surface of the Moon, drive at least 500m, and then send high-definition audio and video back to Earth. Nasa has its own competing competition, called Catalyst, with similar goals, while the agency itself doesn't have any landers planned, it is expecting to be able to capture an asteroid, put it into lunar orbit, and study it, all "by the mid-2020s".

Taken all together, it's clear that we're about to enter a particularly flurried period of lunar exploration. Why? Many of the reasons are covered in Michael Brooks' excellent NS piece from last year, "Who owns the Moon?" - because mineral rights play a large part here. While there is still a huge amount of prestige involved in successfully landing something on the Moon (there are still only four nations that have managed it), the larger story here is one of economic and political realities impacting on where space agencies focus. 

As Brooks writes, there is no one person or organisation or political body that can lay claim to the Moon, but the international law governing that is rather weak - and the value of the stuff to be mined from its rocks is too tempting to ignore for governments who want a financial return from . Helium-3 (the fuel in fusion reactors, once we've worked out how to build them), rare earth minerals, water - each existing in quantities worth billions, if not trillions, of dollars. Projects like the International Space Station (lots of scientific value, symbol of peaceful international cooperation, prestigious, extraordinarily expensive, little financial return on investment) are less and less attractive to governments now than future Moon and asteroid missions (lots of scientific value, prestigious, each mission costs a fraction of a fraction of an ISS, potentially lucrative return on investment).

Each nation that dreams of sending a rover to the Moon is doing so with, at the very least, an implicit belief that it's a precursor to establishing some kind of mining base, or a base that can act as a spaceport from which to launch missions to elsewhere in the Solar System, or both. But, before all that - these landers. The Moon's going to be a busy place over the next five years.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

All photos available for public use: Wikimedia Commons, Getty, Flickr
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Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.

These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).

St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.

The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.

The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.