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The Sciences

One Giant Step for a Small, Crowded Country

Are the Japanese moving to the moon?

By Tony McNicolNovember 28, 2006 6:00 AM

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Visions of a moon bustling with people got a bit closer to reality recently when Japanese space agency JAXA announced an as-yet-unfunded plan to construct a manned moon base by 2030. Lunar and Planetary Exploration Team director Junichiro Kawaguchi said that the moon base would allow two or three astronauts to stay for up to half a year at a time. JAXA hopes that their Selene lunar orbiter, scheduled for launch next year, will lay some of the groundwork for populating the moon. The 6,360-pound spacecraft will carry a package of 13 instruments to study the moon's surface, interior composition, and gravitational and magnetic fields. Two more robotic missions would then follow. If all goes well, the first astronauts could be doing lunar reconnaissance by the 2010s, Kawaguchi says.

Of course, Japan is not the only country looking moonward. NASA says their newly named Orion craft will reach the moon by 2020. Longer-range plans have not been discussed. China and India have also thrown their hats into the ring by funding their own moon programs. "We have to keep up with other countries' activities to retain our technological lead," Kawaguchi says. He warns against an "imbalance of power" should China and India attempt to stake their claim to moon territory. Still, national rivalry may not be enough to persuade the Japanese government to fund the project. As agency spokesman Satoki Kurokawa points out, "It is best to think of this plan as one of a number of visions for the future of JAXA."

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