Science: Clementine sets off in search of lunar gold: The United States is about to visit the Moon for the first time in 21 years, writes Peter Bond

Tomorrow America heads for the Moon again. With the exception of two scans by the Galileo probe on its way to Jupiter, no US spacecraft has returned to the scene of the country's greatest technological triumphs in 21 years.

However, this is about to change as the result of a rare collaboration between the civilian space agency Nasa and the Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation (BMDO).

The progeny of this pairing is an unmanned space probe known as Clementine, after the girl in the song about the California Gold Rush. Hopes are high that it will reveal unknown minerals on the Moon and on a small Earth-grazing asteroid called Geographos.

In the mid-Eighties, the Reagan administration's 'Star Wars' programme dreamt of a space umbrella that could detect and destroy incoming enemy missiles. As part of this project, the US Defense Department was eager to test new sensors by subjecting them to the rigours of long exposure to space.

Meanwhile, Nasa's planetary science community could not persuade Congress to pay for new missions to the Moon and planets. The agency turned towards a new policy of 'better, faster, cheaper' spacecraft as a way out of the impasse.

In 1990, the military and Nasa realised they could kill two birds with one stone by testing new defence hardware beyond Earth's orbit. Although this would increase the mission cost from dollars 50m ( pounds 35m) to dollars 80m, the extra amount would be offset by removing the need to launch a target vehicle for the original Earth-bound trial. The two agencies agreed to a joint exploration of the Moon and an asteroid and, in January 1992, Clementine was born.

For this first mission, Nasa's contribution is relatively modest. '(It) will contribute the Deep Space Network (large radio dishes scattered around the globe), a science team of 12, navigation and guidance,' says the BMDO project manager Colonel Pedro Rustan. 'But 90 per cent of the work was done here.'

Clementine's launch weight is 450kg without the solid propellant rocket motor, and spacecraft design and construction were completed within three years.

Advanced computer chips from Matra Marconi will be used to compress the data for storage in a large-capacity solid state recorder before transmission to Earth.

The mission is mainly military-led, but a team of scientists headed by Eugene Shoemaker of the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, had some say on the lunar orbits and the most suitable wavelengths to study the target bodies.

The complement of scientific instruments includes six cameras - two for navigation and four for science experiments. These will scan their targets in 11 different wavelength bands between the near-infra-red and ultraviolet.

Civilian scientists such as Shoemaker are not entirely happy with the idea of using a Department of Defense spacecraft, but in the absence of a Nasa lunar programme, there is little choice. Col Rustan accepts that Clementine leaves something to be desired as a planetary probe. 'If it was a strictly scientific mission, the instruments would have to be upgraded.'

This is not to say that the scientific results will not be of any value. 'We haven't been to the Moon in more than 20 years, or to a near-Earth asteroid ever, so any information will be new,' says Col Rustan. 'We'll get better than Apollo resolution from the same distance, but the cameras weigh 1/100th as much.'

Clementine is scheduled for launch tomorrow by a refurbished Titan 2 ballistic missile from Vandenberg in California. The craft will reach the Moon in late February.

It will then be placed in a highly elliptical, five-hour orbit over the lunar poles, a flight path not available to the Apollo astronauts or previous unmanned probes. The next two- and-a-half months will be spent mapping the Moon strip by strip as it spins beneath the craft. Average resolution of the images will be about 200 metres, but the laser-imaging system should be able to detect objects as small as five metres across when the satellite swoops to within 400km of the surface.

Clementine is expected to provide the first full digital image model of the Moon. If any water ice exists in deep shaded craters near the lunar poles, it should be revealed to Clementine's electronic eyes. Geologists should also be able to learn more about lunar history and the processes that have shaped its surface.

Once its studies of our Moon are completed, Clementine will be redirected towards its second objective, the asteroid 1620 Geographos. During the next four months, it will follow a roundabout route that involves two Earth fly-bys and a close lunar pass, before zipping past its small, rocky target at a distance of less than 100km.

Approaching from the shaded dark side, Clementine's view will change from a thin crescent to almost full illumination as the irregularly shaped chunk of rock swells in size. More than 2,000 images should eventually be relayed back to Earth for analysis.

Despite considerable scientific interest, BMDO intends to shut down the Clementine programme later this year. Under pressure from budget cutbacks, officials have said that research into space-based missile defence systems is no longer compatible with the new emphasis on ground-based defence.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?