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Asia could win next 'Space Race', US scientists fear

by Staff Writers
Pasadena, California (AFP) Sept 30, 2007
Fifty years after the launch of Sputnik left the United States scrambling to play catch-up in the first Space Race, US scientists fear history may be repeating itself as Asia emerges as the rising force in space exploration.

While the achievements of space programs run by China, Japan and India are modest in comparison to the milestones set by the United States and former Soviet Union, experts at a recent conference in Pasadena believe it is only a matter of time before Asia leads the field.

China, which sent a man into space for the first time in 2003, plans to launch its own moon probe before the end of the year, followed by India in the first half of 2008. Japan kick-started the Asian lunar race on September 14 when it successfully launched its first lunar orbiter.

While China and India have raised the possibility of a manned lunar mission within the next decade, the United States has vowed to return to the Moon in 2020, 48 years after the last US visit. NASA meanwhile has set the ambitious target of wanting to put a man on Mars in 2037.

"When we celebrate 100 years of Sputnik, we might celebrate the 20th anniversary of man landing on Mars," Frank Griffin, NASA's chief administrator said recently.

But many astrophysicists, space engineers and other high-ranking US scientists do not share Griffin's optimism, pointing to waning interest in space exploration amongst young Americans and a lack of government investment in developing elite scientists.

"In America, contrary to our self-image, we are no longer leaders but simply players," said Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in a recent editorial. "We've moved backward just by standing still."

The numbers of new scientists in Asian countries are eclipsing those in the United States. In 2004, around 500,000 engineers graduated in China, 200,000 in India and only 70,000 in the US, according to a report from the National Academy of Sciences released this year.

The authors of the report -- "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" -- warned the United States risked losing its position as the leading technological superpower if present trends continued.

"Although many people assume that United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case," the report warned. "We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost -- and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.

"This nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security."

According to Ares Rosakis, a professor of Aeronautics at the prestigious California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the scientific community has struggled to capture the imagination of younger generations.

"We have failed to communicate and infuse the excitement of space into our younger generation," Rosakis said.

Charles Elachi, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, echoed Rosakis' comments.

"Clearly, there are so many distractions in our society but every time we have kids visiting JPL and we talk about space exploration, showing them Mars rovers, having astronauts, they get completely taken by it," Elachi said.

"The challenge we have now in our society is the wide distraction that kids get from networks, games, iPods, YouTube and so on. We need to figure a way to get their attention."

Frank Fernandez, director emeritus of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), blamed a lack of investment in human resources.

"We need to invest in people," Fernandez warned. "We don't have people in the pipeline."

Renewed Quest To Solve The Moon Puzzle
Spacefaring nations are accelerating their quest to solve the mysteries of the moon, 35 years after the last human landing, and use it as a springboard to explore planets beyond.

Lunar missions dominated the international astronautics congress in Hyderabad, southern India, where 2,500 delegates gathered for five days ending Friday to discuss inter-planetary space travel.

The US wants to revisit the moon by 2020, and Japan, China and India are firming up their own plans to land astronauts on the earth's only natural satellite, after a string of exploratory robotic missions.

"We are just starting and are conservative but we have a very clear roadmap for lunar exploration," Jitendra Goswami, the chief scientist of the Indian moon programme, told AFP here.

India's first robotic mission next year, budgeted at 100 million dollars, will be followed by a second in 2012, Goswami said. The dates for a manned mission will be announced next year.

Japan, which spent 55-billion-yen (478-million-dollar) launching a lunar orbiter in September, plans to carry out two more missions and collaborate internationally to put a man on the moon, space scientist Manabu Kato said.

China's plans include setting up a lunar base after 2020, capping a series of robotic missions beginning at the end of 2007 and a human landing, said Ji Wu, director of China's Centre for Space Science and Applied Research.

The US Apollo programme resulted in the only manned spaceflights to the moon, with six landings from 1969 to 1972.

Yet the moon, at a distance of about 380,000 kilometres from Earth, remains a puzzle to scientists, with questions persisting about its origin, the minerals it contains and whether it has water to support human life.

"There is renewed interest from the scientific community to look at the moon from close quarters and understand it better," said G. Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

"They are trying to look for basic signatures of the evolution of planet earth," Nair added. "Secondly, they want to explore the terrain, the minerals available there, in what quantities, and whether they are commercially exploitable."

Mineral samples from the moon contained abundant quantities of helium 3, a variant of the gas used in lasers and refrigerators, which as a possible fuel for fusion reactors may offer a solution to the Earth's energy woes, but it's premature to talk about exploiting them, experts say.

"You can only invest for the future," said B.N. Suresh, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram. "What's in store 25 years or 50 years later is anybody's guess."

The US wants to return to the moon, via the international space station being built in low-Earth orbit, and use it for missions to Mars and beyond.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin said here that a Mars mission may be possible by 2040.

"If at all we wish to go for exploration of other planets and the solar system, a base in the moon will be of great help," said India's Nair. "We should understand what type of surface and environment exists there and based on that we can have lunar bases in the future."

The data that emerges from the robotic and manned missions "will help us in arriving at such conclusions," he added.

The Hyderabad space congress took place in the 50th year of the space age, ushered in by the Sputnik-1, the first man-made satellite, launched on October 4, 1957 by the then Soviet Union.

That pioneering launch spurred the US Apollo programme and the first human landing on the moon in 1969, which remains "perhaps the greatest technological achievement of the last century," said Bangladesh-born space historian Asif Siddiqi.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Japan plans two more moon missions
Hyderabad, India (AFP) Sept 27, 2007
Japan plans to carry out two more missions to the moon and then collaborate internationally to put a man on the lunar surface, a Japanese space scientist said Thursday.

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