America is preparing to land a robot on the moon for the first time in four decades.
Nasa is looking for private partners to participate in the project that will see a new generation of rovers wandering across the moon’s surface.
The American space agency has set up a programme called Catalyst to exploit commercial opportunities offered by the moon.
It believes that eventually there will be a market for commercial cargo trips to the lunar surface.
“As Nasa pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, US industry will create opportunities for Nasa to advance new technologies on the moon,” said Greg Williams, Nasa’s deputy associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
But America is not alone.
Last month China sent its Jade Rabbit rover to the moon, making it the first country to make a soft lunar landing since 1976, when the Soviet Union sent the Luna 24 mission to collect rock samples.
Other countries including Japan and India are also looking to become major players in lunar exploration.
“It’s starting to get a little crowded out there,” said Jonathan McDowell, an academic at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“After the Apollo programme we did amazing things with robots in space.
“We went to every planet in the solar system and we rather forgot the moon, we rather felt we had been there and done that.
“In terms of human flight we retreated to earth orbit, we worked on the space shuttle and then the space station.”
For decades, information from the moon was sketchy, with grainy images being sent back to earth from an old spy satellite.
But recent lunar orbiting missions have produced far more impressive results.
Images now display a huge amount of detail including the trail of Neil Armstrong’s walk when he was the first man to set foot on the moon in July 1969 .
This work has breathed life into the hope of putting a man back on the moon.
The idea was first floated by President George W Bush although according to Dr McDowell, the budget he set was unrealistic.
But the growing use of private partnerships has changed the financial landscape.
Nasa is ready to offer its expertise to private companies to develop lunar exploration, but it is not putting up any cash for the missions.
However, the co-operation with the private sector has fuelled optimism that the moon could eventually house a space station.
Already there are plans to explore the lunar South Pole, where it is hoped there could be abundant natural resources that would make a base self-sustaining.
“We now have a huge database on the moon. We have been looking for water. On the lunar South Pole there could be ice,” Dr McDowell added.
“If we are going to make ‘Star Trek’ voyages to other planets, the moon is a great place to go.
“It is great to do this somewhere where it only takes three days to get home.”
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