The International Lunar Network: Exploring the Moon, Together

Taking advantage of the current focus on lunar exploration, NASA is leading an international effort to establish a network of geophysical monitoring stations on the Moon … the_moon/. The venture, known as the "International Lunar Network," or ILN for short, seeks to place between 4 and 8 such bases at selected locations on the Moon in the next decade. Each of the nodes will be launched and operated by different national space agencies, but all will work together as a unified monitoring network. According to Jim Green, director of NASA's Division of Planetary Science, this model of international cooperation could then serve as a template for a similar venture on Mars.

In addition to being an experiment in international cooperation beyond Earth orbit, the ILN is also a response to specific scientific challenges. In 2007 the National Research Council of the National Academies published a report entitled The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon which strongly recommended establishing a network of 4 to 8 seismic monitoring nodes on the lunar surface. But according to former NASA Associate Administrator Alan Stern, in these days of limited resources and stretched budgets NASA cannot afford to build and launch this number of additional missions to the Moon. And so NASA is reaching out to sister agencies around the world by offering to coordinate a joint venture – the ILN. Working together, several agencies may be able to accomplish what no single one of them could do by itself.

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The ILN initiative comes at an opportune time, when international space agencies are focusing unprecedented resources on lunar exploration. In what the Planetary Society has termed "The International Lunar Decade" six different nations plus the European Space Agency are planning to send as many as 18 orbiters and landers to the Moon in the coming years. The European Space Agency's Smart 1 mission has already ended, and Japan's Kaguya and China's Chang'e-1 are currently in orbit around the Moon. India's Chandrayaan -1 will join them later this year, and a series of orbiters, landers, and rovers from Russia, Germany, and the UK, as well as Japan, China, and India will follow by 2015. NASA will launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) this year, and the agency is planning several low-cost lunar missions for the following years. Overall, the Moon is currently the target of unprecedented international interest.

This, Green believes, makes for a unique opportunity to embark on international ventures in lunar exploration like the ILN. "NASA will not necessarily be 'the big guy on the block' in this initiative, but more of a coordinator" he said, since "other countries are investing more than the U.S. in lunar exploration. "It is a great chance to work together and do outstanding planetary science" he added. Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society agreed: "The Moon is very much an international arena and NASA's initiative for an International Lunar Net provides new opportunities for synergy among spacefaring nations" he said. "It enhances the nascent International Lunar Decade."

According to current plans the nodes of the International Lunar Network will be built and launched by different space agencies, but their landing sites on the Moon will be determined in advance according to the needs of the network. This will allow the network as a whole to monitor geophysical activity over the entire Moon. Each of the nodes will carry a core set of instruments that all will have in common as well as instruments unique to each station. The core package will undoubtedly include seismic monitors, but could also include instruments that measure the heat flow through the Moon, and possibly retroreflectors that allow for precise measurements of distance and motion by reflecting light beams from Earth back to their source. The unique instruments in each station will vary, and will allow the stations to carry out scientific measurements independently of the ILN.

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Retroreflector arrays on the Moon
Retroreflector arrays like this one were deployed on the Moon by astronauts from Apollo 11, Apollo 14, and Apollo 15. Modern versions of these instruments may be standard on the nodes of the International Lunar Network. Credit: NASA 
Some of the instruments that are being considered for the ILN, such as seismic monitors and retroreflectors, were placed on the lunar surface in the past by the Apollo astronauts and various robotic landers. But modern instruments are far more sensitive and more accurate than those designed and built 30 and 40 years ago. In addition, the older instruments were place on the Moon haphazardly, with no overall plan or any intention of them working together. In particular, no instruments were placed on the far side of the Moon, where communication with Earth would require the presence of an orbiter going overhead. In contrast, the ILN will be designed specifically to monitor the entire lunar surface, and several of the nodes are destined to the Moon's dark side.

Work on the ILN was launched in earnest on March 12, 2008 at a NASA informational briefing to potential partner agencies at the Lunar and Planetary Science meeting (LPSC) in Houston. The meeting was attended by representatives from Russia, India, Canada, Germany, Korea, the United Kingdom, and other nations, all of whom might be interested in building and launching one of the ILN nodes. The representatives then returned to their countries to report on the ILN with an eye to joining the initiative. The next stage is for the participating agencies to draft an ILN charter, outlining the network's mission and defining the obligations of each participating agency to the joint project. Working groups will then be established to decide such issues as the required core instruments shared by all nodes, the precise landing site of each, and the means of communication between the stations and with Earth. Once this preliminary work is complete and the charter signed, each space agency will begin work on its own lander.

Although NASA's main role in the ILN, according to Green, will be that of a coordinator, it will nevertheless be one of the major participants as well. The agency has already committed to sending two ILN stations to the Moon in 2013 or 2014, one to each lunar pole. Two additional nodes are currently under consideration for launch in 2016 or 2017. The rest of the network will be the work of other nations and agencies, many of whom have only recently joined the family of spacefarers. "It's an outstanding opportunity for nations that are just starting out" to learn the business of space exploration, said Green. "We are moving beyond the few privileged nations of the past."