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Plans for Africa-led mission to the moon

It is now Africa’s turn to go to the moon, according to the Cape Town-based Foundation for Space Development. The plan is to land a probe on the moon, or put one into orbit around it, and beam these images back to schoolrooms on the continent, as part of the #Africa2Moon project.

“We’re planning a mission to the moon led by Africa,” says aeronautical engineer Jonathan Weltman, chief executive of the foundation. “We can inspire people, promote education – not five years from now, but today.”

Usually in space missions, a project is conceptualised, designed and costed before it is made public. This was the case with the crowd-sourced Lunar Mission One, announced this week. British company Lunar Missions said it planned to launch a mission to the rim of the South Pole-Aiken Basin on the moon to undertake scientific experiments, funded by the public to the tune of $1-billion.

“Normally,” says Weltman, who is also with South African company Space Commercial Services, “you have a preplanning phase, your feasibility studies define the scientific objectives and, once ready with the mission plans and the costs, you go public.”

He believes the pre-planning phase is one of the most exciting and an opportunity that should not be wasted, and that the public should be involved. “I believe if people are inspired, they’ll want to know more.”

More affordable technology
Dr Peter Martinez, chairperson of the South African Council for Space Affairs, is also a founding director of the foundation. He told the Mail & Guardian: “Space technology is becoming more affordable and the barriers to entry are getting lower all the time.”

He also recognises space activities as a good way to get young people interested in science, mentioning the recent deployment of the Philae lander on a comet. “We started wondering whether the conditions aren’t right for an African mission,” he says.

The foundation aims to crowd-source the money for the project, and at the moment is chasing a R1.65-million target by January 31 next year with the hope of having a design and feasibility study ready by November 2015.

Weltman says about a quarter of this money will be spent on outreach and education campaigns, including six public engagement events. “If we raise more money … we’ll do more. The feasibility study itself will be presented at an international space conference late next year.”

Third aspect
However, he says it would be wasteful to send a probe to the moon for the sole purpose of outreach and education; science is the third part of the initiative because “we can make a meaningful contribution to international knowledge about the moon. The programmes must be led by science [objectives and knowledge], not only inspiration.”

The project – whose supporters include the University of Cape Town’s SpaceLab, the South African Space Association, Women in Aerospace, the Cape Town Science Centre, the Space Commercial Services Group, the Space Advisory Company and the Space Engineering Academy – has been conceptualised and initiated in South Africa, but Martinez, who is also the programme convenor at SpaceLab, denies that it is a South African project. “The project has originated here in South Africa, but there is an interest already from colleagues elsewhere in Africa,” he says.

Weltman says this is also part of the reason why they are crowd-funding, rather than looking to African governments or space agencies. “We don’t want to bring in any nationalistic agenda,” he says. “At some point, we’ll have to engage – we’re not trying to be anti-government, but we don’t want the project to be seen as South African or Southern African.”

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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