Next year, the Chinese space mission Chang’e 3 is embarking on the first soft moon landing in 40 years — and Hawaii scientists will have a pair of eyes on the trip.
“This is exciting because someone is finally going back to the moon,” said Steve Durst, founder and director of International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA).
Durst’s organization signed an agreement with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) last week granting Hawaii scientists the chance to look through China’s lunar telescope on the historic expedition.
In return, Chinese scientists will get observing time on Hawaii telescopes on two upcoming lunar voyages.
While the Chinese expedition will be historic —the last time a spacecraft landed on the moon without being destroyed was in 1976 —the agreement itself is a big deal.
According to Durst, it’s the first moon-related partnership between American and Chinese organizations.
And if some Hawaii government officials have their wish, it could help spark a larger aerospace industry in the islands.
John Hamilton, deputy director of Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) at the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), said he thinks the state should follow Durst’s lead and partner with China as well.
“The future of space exploration is very international,” he said. “We’re trying to develop an international test bed here…There’s a lot happening and there’s a lot of potential for Hawaii to be a key player in this.”
Durst said the purpose of the collaboration is primarily educational.
“The goal is to acquire the first images of the Milky Way galaxy and the stars from the moon,” Durst said.
The photos gathered on the expeditions will be used in the organization’s galaxy education program, a series of international events to increase awareness of galaxy science and exploration.
Hamilton, who works as a physics and astronomy instructor at the University of Hawaii in addition to his role at the state space center, said that the new partnership could have positive implications for science education in Hawaii.
“It does inspire students quite well to have something taken from the moon,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said that working together on space expeditions can serve as a “knowledge multiplier.”
“Cooperation between those with common communications and common infrastructure would allow a much larger program of exploration science,” he said.
Rep. Angus McKelvey, chair of the Economic Revitalization & Business committee in the Hawaii House of Representatives, said that the partnership has economic implications, too.
“It will spur interest in Hawaii’s aerospace industry,” McKelvey said. “Aerospace is one of the big key sectors of the innovation economy. Hawaii is one of few states in the nation where there is synergy between the different sectors.”
While McKelvey was excited about the venture, he was also disappointed that the state couldn’t be more involved.
According to McKelvey, since the space center became part of the DBEDT on July 1, no interim director has been appointed, preventing the Hawaii space center from joining the agreement last week.
“Look at the projects that are now slipping through our fingers,” McKelvey said. “There is a huge opportunity here. PISCES is a natural conduit especially given some of the federal restrictions in place.”
In 2011, Congress banned scientific collaboration between NASA or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and China.
But the law doesn’t affect states or private organizations.
“The era of commercial space is what is really going to take up the international playing field,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to have private companies that aren’t going to be shackled by legislation and national politics.”
Durst said that the partnership with the Chinese academy was the natural progression of a long history international cooperation.
“We have been learning about Chinese observatories and visiting Chinese astronomical facilities for the last 15 years,” Durst said.
The agreement will give Hawaii scientists the chance to take ultraviolet images of the galaxy, said Joseph Sulla, a member of the ILOA board of directors. In return, Chinese scientists will get to view space with Hawaii’s optical imaging technology.
Chinese scientists will also be able to see through Hawaii’s instruments when they launch in lunar missions set for 2014 and 2015.
In 2014, ILOA is sending a 10-centimeter telescope on the Moon Express, a privately owned spacecraft based in Silicon Valley.
The Moon Express is competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which will give $30 million in prizes to the first privately funded venture to send a robot to the moon.
In 2015, the Hawaii group is also sending a spacecraft to the moon that will attach a 2-meter dish to the South Pole.