CCNet 88/2003 - 17 October 2003

We now know that since it was last seen, Hermes has made eight close
approaches to the Earth and Venus to within 0.06 AU, including an Earth
approach to within about 1.6 lunar distances in 1942. The new orbit
solution allows us to predict future close approaches with great accuracy;
we can now predict that Hermes will not approach the Earth any closer than
about 0.02 AU (8 lunar distances) within the next hundred years.
    --Steven R. Chesley, Paul W. Chodas, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 16 Oct. 2003

Just an idea, but if this ~is~ the Concorde, perhaps the aircraft
broke the sound barrier right at this point?  You'd expect the
Concorde to go supersonic as soon as permitted; they can't do it
over land, and I assume they have to wait until some number of
miles out over open water in order that the nearest land will not
be subjected to a sonic boom.
    --Rob Matson, CCNet, 17 Oct. 2003

I have one more question - may be a very silly one - since concords and
airplanes have been here for such a long time - this kind of photograph
of contrail of an airplane should have been very common by now and not at
the time when the concords are about to retire.
    --Arvind Paranjpye, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics,

    Ron Baalke - Near Earth Object Program <>

    New Scientist, 16 October 2003

    Space Daily, 16 October 2003

    Arizona Daily Sun, 16 October 2003

    Ron Baalke - Near Earth Object Program <>

    Marco Langbroek <>

    Rob Matson <>

    Arvind Paranjpye <>

    The Space Review


Ron Baalke - Near Earth Object Program <>

Orbit for Hermes Dynamically Linked from 1937 to 2003

Steven R. Chesley
Paul W. Chodas
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
October 16, 2003

Using sophisticated orbit determination tools, the difficult problem of finding
a precise orbit for the long-lost and recently rediscovered asteroid Hermes has
been solved.

The recovery of Hermes was announced on October 15, 2003 by the Minor Planet
Center (MPC) in Cambridge Massachusetts.  The object was initially noted by
Brian Skiff of the LONEOS asteroid search program at the Lowell Observatory in
Arizona, and key follow-up measurements were provided by James Young of JPL's
Table Mountain Observatory in California.  Tim Spahr of the MPC located
prediscovery observations from the last 7 weeks and computed the new object's
orbit.  Noticing that the orbit was very similar to that of Hermes, last seen
during its close approach in 1937, Spahr concluded that the new object was
almost certainly Hermes.  Definitive proof of the object's identity was still
lacking, however, because an orbit linking the known positions in 1937 to those
in 2003 could not be found.

Finding the precise orbit of Hermes is difficult because its trajectory is
very chaotic. In the 66 years since it was last seen, the asteroid has made
numerous close approaches to both the Earth and Venus. Since the orbital changes
at each approach depend highly on the circumstances of the encounter, finding
an orbit with the precise sequence of encounter conditions that links positions
in 2003 to those in 1937 is a challenging problem in orbit determination.

We have now solved this problem by using the JPL Sentry impact monitoring
software in a novel way.  Starting from the 2003 positions, Sentry found twelve
distinct dynamical pathways that produced encounters in 1937, each with a
different sequence of intervening close approach circumstances.  Comparing these
predicted 1937 encounters with the one determined directly from the 1937
observations, we were able to identify the most consistent candidate, and then
zero in on the precise orbit that best matches the positions in both 1937 and
2003. We now know that since it was last seen, Hermes has made eight close
approaches to the Earth and Venus to within 0.06 AU, including an Earth approach
to within about 1.6 lunar distances in 1942.  The new orbit solution allows us
to predict future close approaches with great accuracy; we can now predict
that Hermes will not approach the Earth any closer than about 0.02 AU (8 lunar
distances) within the next hundred years.


New Scientist, 16 October 2003
A large and potentially hazardous asteroid that went missing for almost 66 years ago was re-discovered by astronomers on Wednesday morning. The good news is that its next fly-by, on 4 November, will miss the Earth by a relatively comfortable seven million kilometres.

Asteroid 1937 UB, later dubbed Hermes, set a record for closest recorded approach to the Earth on 30 October 1937. The record lasted for 50 years. Hermes is one to two kilometres in diameter and would cause global devastation if it hit the planet.

So, given its near approach, observers in 1937 were extremely keen to characterise its orbit and assess whether future passes would target the Earth. But with only four days of observations, Hermes was lost soon after it passed by.

Its rediscovery was an accident. Brian Skiff, of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, spotted an interesting bright object with the LONEOS telescope in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Recognising from its motion that it was close to the Earth, he alerted the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Tim Spahr was up before dawn on the US east coast checking asteroid reports for the Minor Planet Center, and posted an alert asking other astronomers to make confirming observations.

Track back

Before the Sun rose in California, Jim Young saw it and made independent observations at the Table Mountain Observatory that helped narrow down the orbit. With this data, Spahr and others were able to track down unrecognised observations of the asteroid dating back to 26 August.
Then Brian Marsden, at the Minor Planet Center, combined the observations and calculated an orbit close to that of the long-lost Hermes - and revealing the safe fly-by on 4 November. The new orbit does not match the original one perfectly, but gravitational perturbation caused by the asteroid's close approaches to Earth and Venus could account for the variation.

Marsden hopes astronomers can pin down the orbit better by making radar observations as the asteroid passes Earth. "I would be very surprised if it wasn't Hermes," Marsden told New Scientist.

Hermes has been on asteroid-hunters' wish list for a long time. "It's the traditional long-lost one that really came close," says Marsden, who calculated an orbit 1969.

Others had continued searching without success, although in 2001 Lutz Schmadel and Joachim Schubart of the University of Heidelberg predicted that October 2003 would be a good time to look.
Jeff Hecht
Copyright 2003, New Scientist


Space Daily, 16 October 2003
PARIS (AFP) Oct 16, 2003

Hermes, a large asteroid that skimmed by the Earth in 1937 but has never been seen again, has been spotted once more after years of effort by astronomers, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) said.

"A bright near-earth candidate" reported by astronomer B.A. Skiff early Wednesday, was confirmed within four hours as Hermes by a visual sighting by another astronomer, the Paris-headquartered IAU's Minor Planet Center said in a circular received here Thursday.

Further calculations are being done to determine its orbit, although early estimates suggest that the rock, formally called 1937 UB (Hermes), takes a little more than two years to go around the Sun, the circular said.

Hermes created a stir when it flew by close to the Earth in October 1937 at a distance of less than a million kilometers (650,000 miles), just 60 percent further than the distance of the Earth to the Moon.

Estimated at the time to be about 800 metres (yards) across, Hermes swiftly disappeared from view, leaving doubts about whether its orbit would ever bring so close, or even closer, to the Earth.

Asteroids are speculated to be the rubble left over from the making of the Solar System -- space rocks that orbit the Sun, although sometimes at long and highly elliptical orbits.

All rights reserved. 2003 Agence France-Presse


Arizona Daily Sun, 16 October 2003

Lowell Observatory announced Wednesday that it has partnered with the science cable networks of Discovery Communications to build a first-of-its-kind, $30 million telescope that will give astronomers a better tool to discover meteors and asteroids.

Called the Discovery Telescope, it is planned for a site on the Coconino National Forest near the Happy Jack ranger station about 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff. Construction is expected to take five to six years. The main dish will be more than 14 feet in diameter and built by Corning Glass in New York.

Discovery Communications founder and CEO John Hendricks and Lowell representatives held a news conference at the observatory to unveil the project and the partnership.

"Finally, a Discovery Communications project that does not involve sharks," quipped Hendricks, a reference to "Shark Week" and various shark-oriented documentaries on the Discovery Channel.

Hendricks has served on the Lowell Observatory Advisory Board for the past decade, and he is a professed lover of astronomy. He helped facilitate a $10 million contribution from Discovery announced Wednesday and added a $1 million personal donation from him and his wife, Maureen.

With other donations and money from the Lowell endowment, the observatory has about $20 million of the $30 million price tag. The cost of operations is expected to be up to $1.5 million a year, but Lowell Director Bob Millis expects a sharp increase in grant awards with the new technology will help offset those costs.

The observatory will continue to pursue and identify funding for the remaining $10 million while the planning and construction gets under way.

Once complete, the telescope will become the fifth-largest operational telescope in the United States. None of Lowell's current research telescopes is within the top 100 largest telescopes in the country.

The Discovery Telescope will be one-of-a-kind because the field of view will be eight times the capacity of the maximum field of view of current scopes.

In effect, instead of offering a keyhole view of the heavens, it will open up the door. This will allow astronomers to see even more space at any one time, increasing the discovery potential of new comets and asteroids.

By example, approximately 2,300 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered in the course of 10 years. Once complete, the Discovery Telescope will make it possible to identify the same number of potentially life-threatening near-Earth asteroids in about 30 days.

Astronomers also can better study the recently discovered Kuiper Belt, a swarm of icy asteroids extending from Neptune to yet-unknown distances. The Kuiper Belt was identified in 1992, and 863 objects in it have been discovered to date.

The latest in technology will allow astronomers to use the Discovery Telescope even on nights with a full moon, which has a brightness that usually affects viewing. The 70-ton telescope also will have quick zooming capabilities.

The Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Objects Search team will be a primary user of the telescope. The team of astronomers watches the night skies 200 nights a year in search of yet-to-be-discovered asteroids and comets that could make close passes with Earth.

LONEOS is one of five such federally funded search projects in the U.S. Lowell started its program in 1998, when Congress directed NASA to set up monitoring for near-Earth objects that are larger than one kilometer. The new telescope will allow discovery of house-sized objects.

"This telescope has been a dream of mine and my colleagues," Millis said, noting its importance in broadening the view and understanding of space.

Millis said he hopes that the telescope will help make more discoveries in the Kuiper Belt, and maybe even discover a 10th planet in the solar system. The last discovered planet, Pluto, was made by Lowell Observatory astronomer Clyde Tombaugh.

"I hope we don't find an asteroid with our number on it," Millis said, noting the possibility exists of a discovered collision course with a big piece of space debris.

The Discovery Telescope also will put Lowell Observatory on the map, internationally. Hendricks said that the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel will chronicle the construction, development and operation of the new telescope in news snippets called "Lowell Minutes." They will air periodically.

The Discovery Channel currently reaches more than 155 countries and has more than 950 million subscribers worldwide, with 80 million of those subscribers in the U.S. Discovery Communications also includes cable networks TLC, Animal Planet, the Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel and Discovery Kids.

While the Discovery Telescope will provide a great tool for Lowell astronomers, they are making major discoveries without it.

Ted Bowell -- the near-Earth objects search program director -- said at the news conference that his staff has rediscovered the asteroid Hermes, a near-Earth object that had not been seen by astronomers since 1937. He called it the "Holy Grail" of near-Earth asteroids, and they spotted it on Monday.

He said its close pass with Earth is about equal to the distance of the moon, and the 2-kilometer-wide asteroid is not on a collision course with Earth. But if it were, that would be bad news.

"Civilization would go right down the tubes, with the Discovery Telescope along with it," Bowell said of a theoretical impact of Hermes.

Copyright 2003, Arizona Daily Sun


Ron Baalke - Near Earth Object Program <>

For Immediate Release

October 15, 2003

Rebecca Stenholm
(602) 417-0684

Angela Rocha
(602) 417-0687


October 15, 2003

Flagstaff, Ariz. - Today, Lowell Observatory and Discovery Communications,
Inc., announced their collaboration to build a $30 million telescope that
will significantly impact the exploration of our solar system and the
universe beyond.

The Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) - designed exclusively for Lowell
Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. - will be among the most sophisticated
ground-based telescopes of its size. The four-meter telescope will have a
significantly wider field of view than any currently existing telescope of
its size, giving it the unprecedented ability to survey the sky at nearly
eight times the capacity of the largest existing survey telescope. In this
wide-field mode, the DCT's ability to perform deep imaging surveys of the
night sky will be unmatched. This versatile telescope can be quickly
converted to its alternative optical configuration, allowing it, unlike
other pure survey telescopes, to be highly effective during bright phases of
the moon. Once operational, the DCT also will have real-time capability,
allowing the images acquired by the telescope to be simultaneously broadcast
to people around the world.

"Since its founding more than a century ago, Lowell Observatory has been
dedicated to astronomical research, particularly the study of our solar
system and its evolution, and to sharing that knowledge with the public,"
said Robert L. Millis, director of the observatory. "The Discovery Channel
Telescope will have a considerable impact on the exploration of our solar
system and the deep reaches of space, and we are very excited to be working
in partnership with Discovery Communications to develop this innovative

Millis also noted that the partnership with Discovery Communications, Inc.,
which also includes educational programming and Lowell Observatory's
involvement in Discovery's annual Young Scientists Challenge, was a natural
fit given the Lowell's research and educational mission and the founding
principles of the education and discovery-oriented company.

"Discovery Communications was founded to provide the highest-quality
television in the world enabling people to explore their world and satisfy
their natural curiosity," said John S. Hendricks, founder, chairman and CEO
of Discovery Communications, Inc. "Together, Discovery and Lowell
Observatory will literally explore our world and bring the most exciting new
discoveries found in our universe to millions of people around the globe."
Among the DCT's numerous scientific objectives, the search for near-Earth
asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects and planets orbiting other stars, will be
substantially advanced.

Approximately 2,300 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered in the last
decade. Once complete, the DCT will make it possible to identify the same
number of potentially life-threatening near-Earth asteroids in just 30 days.
The DCT also will make it possible to identify smaller near-Earth asteroids
capable of causing regional devastation. Currently, the federally mandated
search for near-Earth asteroids focuses on objects that are larger than a
kilometer in diameter and capable of creating global devastation.

Similar results are expected in the search for Kuiper Belt Objects, of which
only 863 have been identified and can range in size from that of large
asteroids to objects comparable in size to the planet Pluto. The Kuiper
Belt, the first objects of which were discovered in 1992, is a sun-centered
swarm of orbiting icy bodies extending from Neptune to as yet unknown

Construction is expected to begin on the DCT in fall 2004, with completion
in 2008. The telescope's innovative components are already in design and
production. The DCT's mirror blanks are being developed by Corning
Incorporated in Canton, N.Y. Design currently continues on the following
telescope components: optical system by Goodrich Corporation in Danbury,
Conn.; facility and site design by M3 Engineering in Tucson, Ariz.; and the
telescope mount by Vertex RSI in Richardson, Texas. The camera that Lowell
will design and build for the four-meter telescope will have 36 2K by 4K
charge-coupled devices capable of acquiring enormous amounts of data from
each exposure and has a two degree field of view.

The DCT is being jointly funded by Discovery Communications, Inc., and
Lowell Observatory. Collaborations with additional institutional partners
and private support also are being sought to help fund the venture.

Lowell Observatory was founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, who was
determined to prove the existence of life on Mars. Lowell Observatory is
among the oldest observatories in the nation, and the observatory's original
24-inch Alvan Clark Refractor telescope, a national historic landmark, is
still in use today for public education. For more than a century, Lowell
Observatory has been considered among the major astronomical research
observatories in the world. Significant achievements made at Lowell include
the discovery of Pluto and the first evidence of the expansion of the

Discovery Communications, Inc., (DCI) is the leading global real-world media
and entertainment company. DCI has grown from its core property, the
Discovery Channel, first launched in the United States in 1985, to current
global operations in more than 155 countries and territories with over 950
million cumulative subscribers. DCI's 33 networks of distinctive programming
represent 14 entertainment brands including TLC, Animal Planet, Travel
Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery Kids, Discovery Times Channel,
The Science Channel, Discovery Wings Channel, Discovery Home & Leisure
Channel, Discovery en Espa-ol, HD Theater and The Health Network. DCI's
other properties consist of and 138 Discovery Channel retail
stores. DCI also distributes BBC America in the United States. DCI's
ownership consists of four shareholders: Liberty Media Corporation (NYSE:
L), Cox Communications, Inc. (NYSE: COX), Advance/Newhouse Communications
and John S. Hendricks, the Company's Founder, Chairman and CEO.

=========== LETTERS ==========


Marco Langbroek <>

Hello Benny, hello Robert, hello Jay

Just read the latest CCNet and seen the new pictures of the event over
Wales. Talking about a new twist to these pictures!

One thing: this is not a meteor, put that out of your mind.

But then: what the heck is it?! In the second image (19:08) the illuminated
part just before the bend in the trail does look like a sunlit contrail.
But then, the first picture (19:06) rather looks....well, I don't know.
Looks more like a smoke-trail to me. But then the Porthcawl image again
looks like a contrail.

Now, we have the following to observe (no doubt you already noted it, but
let me summarize) :

1. On the second new picture the trail is clearly in front of high cirrus
   clouds (ruling out a meteor).
2. In that picture it (the object creating the trail) evidently is changing
   course (ruling out a meteor)
3. These are pictures showing the trail form over several minutes. There is
   1.5 minutes inbetween picture 1 and 2. The trail-forming object moved 'slow'
   on these pictures, as indicated by its position relative to the clouds
   visible. This again rules out a meteor, as for an object moving with
   multiple km/s velocities (meteoroid, or entering space debris) it is much
   too slow.

Points 1, 2 & 3 all effectively rule out a meteor or space debris decay. To
this we can add Rob Matson's results, which point to a horizontal
trajectory, at less than 30 000 feet, which is in line with point 1 made

That it is below a high cirrus deck, means it must be below 10-12 km. This
makes a sighting from Cambridge very troublesome. At 300 km distance and 10 km
altitude, the event should be at 2 degrees sky altitude or less for Cambridge.
On the other hand, if this was a man-made object on an horizontal east-west
trajectory, it would have passed closer to Cambridge earlier in its trajectory,
and indeed at a steep angle with the horizon. This suggests this was an object
travelling over a large area of southern Britain.

The only conclusion left from points 1-3 and the discussion above is: this
clearly must be something travelling in aviation space, and therefore it is
bound to be man-made. But what?

I think this is where military aviation authorities, and they only, can and
should provide an answer. This was clearly a man-made object (I really can
think of no natural phenomena to explain this!) travelling over Britain at
an altitude typical of aviation vehicles. So they SHOULD know. It is their
job to know what travels through British airspace.

If this is an airliner (Concorde or otherwise) military aviation authorities
must be easily able to identify it.
If it was not......well, then THEY certainly should know what it is!
So I think it is time that military aviation authorities speak out on these

For this object, there are the following options I can think of, not all of
them likely perhaps. It must be either:

a) a civil aircraft;
b) a military aircraft, operational or experimental;
c) a missile.

Marco Langbroek
Dutch Meteor Society

P.S. After some contemplation, I think the dark streaks of cloud at lower
altitude might account for much of the mottled appearance in foto 1 of the
trail. In all reality, what the series of pictures then seem to show is a
contrail behind an aircraft coming into sunlight. The bright illuminated
trail part before the clear turn in the trail in picture 2 certainly looks
like a contrail: it appears to show a kind of windy streamers to the left of
it. The narrow extension under a clear angle in front of it is a bit odd.

By the way, if this is the Concorde on way to the US, would it not be
expected to turn the other way around (it is turning south on these
pictures)? On the other hand, I do know sometimes airliners have to circle
once or twice while waiting for their corridor to become free of other
airtraffic. Maybe that explains.

> For this object, there are the following options I can think of, not all of
> them likely perhaps. It must be either:
> a) a civil aircraft;
> b) a military aircraft, operational or experimental;
> c) a missile.

Having contenplated things, I think c) is not a likely option at all. Leaves
a) and b).

- Marco


Rob Matson <>

Hi Benny,

> The new evidence raise new questions and re-open the debate about the
> nature of the perplexing event.

Actually, I should think that the new images would lay to rest any
ideas about the contrail being created by a meteor, for now we
have time-tagged, time-lapse imagery of the event thanks to Gary Green!

Gary was watching the contrail -- **as it was being created**, and from
his account it is clear that he did NOT find its velocity to be

"Shots 1 and 2 were taken as the contrail was being formed. There was
no sign of an aircraft at the leading edge of the contrail."

Clearly he was thinking aircraft. Any meteor, in the atmosphere,
would be ripping across the sky (unless it was heading right at him) --
not dawdling along at less than a degree per second.  Same goes for
space debris -- it's impossible for reentering space debris to go
anywhere near this slow.

Admitedly, the second frame is VERY interesting as it seems to show
a very abrupt change in the vector direction of the object creating
the contrail.  Furthermore, the large plume in the 3rd image (very
similar to the original Pencoed image) appears to be associated
with that change in direction.  Stated another way, it seems rather
unlikely that the timing and location of the billowing plume are
merely coincidental with the contrail kink.  The two are very
probably related to one another.

Just an idea, but if this ~is~ the Concorde, perhaps the aircraft
broke the sound barrier right at this point?  You'd expect the
Concorde to go supersonic as soon as permitted; they can't do it
over land, and I assume they have to wait until some number of
miles out over open water in order that the nearest land will not
be subjected to a sonic boom.



Arvind Paranjpye <>

I have one more question - may be a very silly one - since concords and
airplanes have been here for such a long time - this kind of photograph
of contrail of an airplane should have been very common by now and not at
the time when the concords are about to retire.

Arvind Paranjpye

Sci./Tech. Officer
Public Outreach Programme
Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics
Post Bag #4, Ganeshkhind, Pune 411 007 - India
Phone +91 20 569 1414   +91 20 569 9415 :: Fax   +91 20 569 0760


The Space Review

by Mark R. Whittington
Monday, June 23, 2003

This fall, barring any last minute hitch, China will launch its Shenzhou spacecraft with people inside, thus joining the very exclusive club of nations that have sent humans into space. Chinese government officials have openly spoken of breathtaking ambitions for their country's nascent space effort. Beyond putting people into low Earth orbit, Chinese officials speak openly of first exploring, then settling the Moon in order to exploit its natural resources.

In May 2002, Chinese officials suggested that the ultimate goal of the Chinese space program was the exploration and settlement of the Moon. Huang Chunping, Chief Commander of the Changzheng-2F (CZ-2F) launcher program at the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told the Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao that China would be capable of mounting a manned lunar mission within a few years. "China has now solved most of the manned space technology problems, and has the capability within three to four years to step on the Moon. In ten to fifteen years [China will] match the world's top level of space technology," said Huang. He pointed out that the key to mounting a mission to the Moon would be funding. He said: "China has a huge industrial base and a powerful team of talents. The key problem is on funding."

Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of the lunar exploration plan and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was less specific about the timeline for a manned lunar effort. He said that the near-term objective would be carrying out the unmanned lunar exploration plan. When the manned space technology is perfected, China would move on to the manned phase of the lunar exploration program. According to Ouyang, China would begin the lunar program with a robotic resource exploration satellite. The spacecraft would orbit the Moon to conduct a comprehensive global sensing of resources-for example helium-3, iron, titanium and water ice-and mapping of the surface environment, geomorphology and geological structure. The long-range objective of lunar exploration is to "establish a lunar base, and exploit and utilize the rich resources on the Moon," explained Ouyang. More recently, in March of this year, Ouyang suggested that the lunar orbiter satellite could be launched within two and a half years, to be followed by a lunar lander, possibly coinciding with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and then a sample return mission. The entire program has been named Chang'e, after a character in a Chinese fairy tale who flies to the Moon. Ouyang was vague again about when a manned lunar effort would be mounted, stating that it was "not yet" a goal of the People's Republic, but reiterated that ultimately China would send people to the Moon.

However, in a speech at a space summit in Bangalore, India, last January 4th, Xu Yangsong, a senior official of the Chinese National Space Administration, suggested that China would launch a "manned lunar flyby mission" within four years. The moon mission is "in the study phase" and awaiting approval of the state council, Xu said.

A challenge and opportunity

This aspiration to extend China's influence to Earth's nearest neighbor represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States and its allies. China, which has aspirations to become the second superpower, or even to supplant the United States as the sole superpower, seems to have hit upon expansion into the heavens as a means of achieving that goal. Jim Oberg, a former NASA engineer and space policy analyst, has coined the term "space power." Space power consists of a state's ability to utilize space for economic, political, and military advantage. China understands that in the 21st century the state which is best able to acquire and exert space power will be most likely to be the greatest superpower of the future. Just as sea power was the key to super power status in the 18th and 19th centuries, and air power in the 20th century, space power is the key for such status in the new century.

In the meantime, the United States has no definitive plans to send humans beyond low Earth orbit. Certainly the nuclear propulsion and power technologies being developed by Project Prometheus will have applications for such missions. The myriad of robotic probes being sent to Mars and a proposed sample return mission to the lunar south pole are understood to be precursors for astronauts to follow. But no one in a position of authority has been willing to say when-or even if-humans will voyage back to the Moon and on to Mars since the collapse of President George H.W. Bush's Space Exploration Initiative. America's human space program seems stuck in low Earth orbit and, with the Columbia accident, seems to have only a tenuous hold even there.

The prospect of the Chinese landing yuhangyuans on the Moon and even establishing a permanent presence there while America dithers should be a matter of great concern. China is ruled by a fascist government that, despite certain economic reforms, still regularly violates the human rights of its own citizens and threatens other countries with invasion or destruction. China's ascendancy as the sole superpower, helped along by her space activities, would be a horrific development, threatening freedom and world peace. Even without reference to China's lunar ambitions, the military implications of Shenzhou should give one pause. The integration of technologies achieved by Shenzhou , including recoverable satellite capability, implies the ability to hit targets in the United States with nuclear warheads with a great deal of accuracy. Also the same low-power propulsion technology used to adjust a spacecraft's orbit could also be used to alter the path of offensive missiles, helping them evade proposed US anti-missile defense systems, military expert Song Yichang told the state-run China Business Times a few years ago. "We can use this technology to change trajectories in flight, making missiles do a little dance and evade opponents' attacks," the newspaper said.

China's space ambitions suggest, and indeed demand, a response from the United States and her allies. In order to avoid being left behind in space, and thus having its position as sole superpower called into question, the United States should jump start its moribund space effort. In effect, the United States should challenge China to a space race.

The appeal of such a race is obvious. It could be suggested that more progress was made in perfecting the art of space travel in the eight years between Kennedy's lunar challenge and the landing of Apollo 11 than in the over thirty years since Apollo ended. Reintroducing the spur of international competition would seem to be a potent idea.

Space race criticism

However the notion of a space race between the United States and her allies and China is not without critics. The criticism can be divided into two parts.

The first is that China's space ambitions are more pipedream than reality, because of a perceived Chinese technological and economic backwardness. Yet China has a large pool of technical talent and access to technology developed by the United States and Russia, which can be gotten either on the open market or by more surreptitious means. Because of that pool of talent, China would also seem capable of developing their own technology given time and funding.

China's GDP, while smaller than Western countries, is not at Third World levels. According to the World Bank, the 2001 China GDP was just over a trillion dollars. In comparison, the GDP for the United States in 1961, the year President Kennedy announced the Apollo lunar effort, was about five hundred fifty billion dollars adjusted for inflation. China is also not prone to shrink from large-scale projects it feels is important. The Three Gorges Dam, designed to tame the unruly Yangtze River and provide hydroelectric power, is estimated to cost a hundred billion dollars.

One interesting point against the idea of a Chinese space threat was made recently by Rand Simberg in his Transterrestrial Musings weblog. He stated, "a true free-market approach (of which, under the current regime, I suspect they're incapable) will leave them in the dust. That's why I don't even consider them relevant to our species' future in space, unless they display some dramatic change in approach." The problem is that the United States is not following a free market approach in space flight. NASA is still insisting on running its own space line, rather than going to the private sector for launch services, for example.

Some critics point to the vagueness with which Chinese officials speak of a manned lunar effort. The implication is that such an undertaking is so far into the future that the West hardly need worry about it. But several sources, including the authoritative Encyclopedia Astronautica, suggest that the Shenzhou project will put in place all the technology needed to mount a manned lunar effort. The CZ-5 launcher, which would be used to mount a manned lunar effort, could be ready as early as 2010. That suggests the capability to send yuhangyuans to the Moon some time in the next decade.

Many space experts believe that a lunar effort has very little value outside prestige. Some, like Dr. Robert Park of the American Physical Society, disdain the value of any human in space effort, believing that robots are sufficient. The problem is that these experts are wrong on two counts. They are wrong in suggesting that landing people on the Moon only gains prestige. They are even wrong in the implication that prestige doesn't matter.

Prestige is a characteristic required of all great powers. Machiavelli expounded on the advantage of gaining prestige when he wrote, "Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example." Machiavelli's examples mostly consisted of victory in war, however the 1960s space race was, among other things, unarmed combat between the two super powers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a "war" which the United States won, much to its credit during a time when Vietnam and other problems proved to be a drain on her prestige.

A different kind of space race

The second part of the criticism is that a space race between the United States and China would be undesirable and even disastrous. Jeff Foust expressed that view eloquently in The Space Review recently, suggesting that a space race with China would end pretty much as the one with the Soviet Union.

That race was arguably another battle, albeit a peaceful, nondestructive one,
in the Cold War. Less than twelve years after the first shot of that battle,
Sputnik, was fired, the US could claim victory by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz
Aldrin on the Moon. However, both the Soviet Union and the United States lost
interest in manned lunar exploration shortly thereafter, and Apollo coasted to
an end as both countries focused resources on other efforts.

However the unspoken assumption seems to be that the political factors that led to the demise of Apollo in the early 1970s would automatically be repeated in the 2010s or 2020s. That's a supposition that is unconvincing, considering current political trends. In any case, people who propose a new space race with the Chinese have in mind something entirely different than what occurred in the 1960s. The new race would not be toward a single point goal like landing on the Moon, once accomplished to be forgotten. While Apollo was a sprint, the new space race would be more like a marathon. The winner will be the first nation that becomes a spacefaring power. That nation will own the future.

I suggested how such a race might be conducted in an article in Space Policy Digest several years ago.

We therefore have a model of a "space race" with China in the early years
of the 21st Century. Instead of a scenario which features a Presidential
pronouncement of "we choose to go to Mars" followed by flag and footsteps
expedition that leads nowhere, it is a model that relies on America's true
strength. That strength does not reside in large, government bureaucracies
but in the vigor of private, entrepreneurial institutions. So with this model
in mind, how does America beat China in the space race? The first thing the
United States would do is to refocus its national space effort to support
the expansion of private business. The US would pass tax and other incentives
to foster private space development. Technology research programs would be
funded with a goal of lowering the cost of traveling to space and operating
there. Instead of operating a government space line (also known as the space
shuttle fleet) the US would acquire its launch services in the private sector.

Government sponsored expeditions to the Moon, Mars, or other destinations
would not be undertaken to just facilitate prestige or "good science." Such
voyages would be conducted to test space technologies that could be used by
private business. The purpose of a return to the Moon would be primarily to
test things such as lunar oxygen extraction, lunar mining (including polar ice),
and lunar based solar power stations such as been suggested by Dr. David Criswell.

In other words, not Apollo, but something much more. It is the free market approach many are looking for, buttressed by government sponsored research and development and core markets. The United States became the preeminent air power in the 20th century in just such a manner, with R&D under NASA's predecessor NACA and by contracting out delivery of airmail to the private sector. Foust seemed to agree with that approach in his piece:

Those predicting such a race, and even hoping for one to break out, might be
better served by helping craft policies and programs that would benefit the
long-term development and use of space for defense, exploration, and commerce.
That's a race well worth winning.

No disagreement there. And, as I suggested three years ago, the stakes would be high indeed.

The winner of the next space race of the 21st Century will not be the nation
that is the first to plant a flag on some distant world. The winner will be
the first nation that transforms itself into a true space faring civilization,
gaining for itself the economic and political benefits of being such a society.
The United States cherishes its traditions of human freedom, belief in progress,
and optimism for the future. China elevates the might of the state over the rights
of the individual, crushes dissent, and seeks world domination. Which country
will become the first space faring remains to be seen. The winner of that space
race will shape the future of the entire human race, not just for the coming
century, but for all time to come.

Mark R. Whittington ( is a writer and space policy analyst based in Houston, Texas. He is the author of Children of Apollo.

Copyright 2003, The Space Review

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