German scientists have announced plans to send a lunar probe to orbit the moon. The project's success could be one small step for man and one giant leap for Germany's space ambitions. But should Germany go it alone?
The moon has fascinated mankind since ancient times
An international symposium is taking place in Bremen this week to consider humankind's future in space. Space experts, scientists, industry leaders and politicians are discussing the political and scientific motivation behind a new space exploration initiative at "To the Moon and Beyond," hosted by the German Society for Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The symposium coincides with plans disclosed earlier this month by the German Aerospace Center DLR to start a mission to the moon from 2013.
"We plan to send a lunar probe equipped with various instruments to orbit the moon for a four-year period," said Walter Döllinger, the head of the space program at DLR.
The "Lunar Exploration Orbiter" (LEO) would mainly map the moon's surface -- three-dimensionally, in color and at a resolution of one meter, Döllinger said. At present, only 8 percent to 10 percent of the moon is charted, he said. But LEO could provide a better examination of the structure of the lunar rocks.
"There are several countries which fly to the moon and this can help them to better determine where to land," Döllinger said of LEO. "It can also map interesting geological sites, for example what comes to the surface when an impact crater occurs."
Mission could add to German clout
Döllinger said it was important for Germany to do something of its own in this area, despite the fact that the country contributes funds to the European space agency ESA and is flying to Mars with ESA in 2013/2014.
ESA was able to take detailed photos of Mars' surface
"ESA has difficulties when it comes to the moon," Döllinger said. "It would take too long to look for partners for this mission via ESA."
He said Italy and Britain were also working to get to the moon independently of ESA.
"If other European nations are attempting this, and doing so aggressively, like Italy, then we have to counter this," Döllinger said. A national mission would give Germany more options in the future, he added.
"Then one has the weight to bring into later missions, for example in a landing mission on the moon," Döllinger said. "Germany can prove that it's ready to develop, implement and oversee its own mission. We have to do this."
Kurt Rossmanith, head of the German parliamentary aviation and space group, said it was important for individual European countries to undertake national forerunner missions.
"With its national moon mission, Germany can take on the leading role for science and industry in a later European ESA moon program," Rossmanith said. After all, Germany has led in areas including researching moon geology, mapping, modern optic communication between the Earth and the moon, robotics and lunar rovers.
Germany's reputation as an innovator
The German government expressed its interest in the mission after DLR presented the plans earlier this month. Rossmanith said exploring the moon was extremely important scientifically and technologically, as well as for international competitiveness.
US astronauts planted the American flag on the moon on July 21, 1969
"I quote John F. Kennedy in his famous speech: We choose to go to the moon, and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," Rossmanith said. Technological challenges such as this allowed Germany to hold and expand its developments in innovation, he said.
The moon mission would give Germany a better profile in the scientific world, said Frank Pohlemann from space exploration company EADS-Astrium.
"The economic advantage mainly justifies itself indirectly," Pohlemann told German television. "Through the development of new technologies we, of course, also do something for the development of Germany as a center for scientific innovation."
DLR has asked EADS-Astrium to conduct preliminary studies on the mission. The Bremen-based company is a subsidiary of European aerospace giant EADS and specializes in satellite technology.
Rossmanith pointed out that a German moon mission wouldn't only prove the country's technological abilities and be a gain in scientific knowledge. It would also create an attractive flagship initiative to motivate young people to learn about science and technology.
LEO a return to nationalist interests
But not everyone is moonstruck by the DLR mission. Peter Hettlich from the opposition Greens party said he thought nothing of the plans to send a German probe to the moon.
The SMART-1 mission demonstrated key technologies for scientific deep-space missions
"In my opinion, there is no reason to restart a race to the moon," said Hettlich, the Green's spokesman for the aviation and aerospace industries. But he added that he did understand the scientific necessity behind exploring the moon more closely.
According to Hettlich, a common ESA mission would be more effective than a national go it alone. He said Germany had just successfully participated in the successful European moon mission SMART-1 in September 2006.
"And I thought incidentally that European cooperation had overcome national particularism," Hettlich said.
"We have enough problems on Earth."
Many advocates of further moon exploration have pointed out that the heavenly body could hold a wealth of valuable mineral resources, such as helium 3. This lighter isotope of the noble gas helium is rare on earth, but thought to exist on the moon. According to experts, helium 3 could one day be used as raw material in commercial fusion reactors.
More research could be done on Earth, too
But Döllinger said this was unrealistic at this point in time. For Hettlich, it was important not to assess the mission solely on the basis of input and output.
"Even if valuable minerals were discovered on the moon, I consider their excavation and utilization utterly absurd," Hettlich said. "As long as the US, Russia and Europe can't even manage together to fully and functionally set up the International Space Station and equip it with the relevant personnel, one shouldn't talk big and reach for distant worlds. We have enough problems on Earth."
DLR has prepared the scientific groundwork for the mission. Döllinger said it was now working on the next steps to realize LEO. The project costs for the entire mission would run to 300 million euros ($395 million), he said.
"We hope there will be a political decision in the spring of 2008 on financing the mission," Döllinger said.
According to Rossmanith, further studies for specifying a national moon mission will be conducted before the government makes a final decision. He said a bilateral cooperation with the United States or a European partner could be possible.