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.

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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.