Lunar Glow, What's Driving The New Space Race To The Moon

'Supermoon' in Auckland, New Zealand
"Supermoon" in Auckland, New Zealand
Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta*

PARIS — Even as the global economy struggles to recover, investment in space activities is flying high. The overall public expenditure in the sector — approximately $70 billion today — has been steadily increasing, projected to reach $80 billion in the next few years. And the commitment is not just growing deeper, but also wider: More than 70 different countries have invested at least $10 million in space programs, double the number from just 10 years ago.

But the motivation is more than economic: The investments in space are also driven by that most human of desires to explore. Countries know that no other kind of mission can compete with the adventures into space in the attraction exerted on the public imagination. Nothing else — except for sport, perhaps — can offer such a visible success for a nation than explorations into space. Between the U.S., China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Europe, 14 different missions on or near the Moon, 13 Mars-related missions, as well as others of asteroids and other planets of the Solar System are planned for the coming years.

Much has been made about the many cuts proposed by the federal budget submitted this month by the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump. But NASA remained virtually untouched, maintaining a fixed budget, mainly focused on what the Trump administration has defined a priority: further space exploration. And while the proposal seems to confirm the NASA project launched by the Obama administration to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, the most notable new focus is on an old destination: the Moon.

The first Chinese lunar roving vehicle, Yutu, — part of the Chang'e 3 mission — boasting a 150-meter altitude range, reached a record of permanence of 31 months on the moon before shutting off last August. The Chang'e mission had achieved the first soft landing on the moon after 40 years (the last one was achieved by the Soviet Union in 1976) with a robotic lander the Jade Rabbit (Yutu) robot. The Chinese ambitions for the moon are notable, and in the coming years include a series of missions aimed to prepare the arrival of astronauts ("taikonauts"), as well as a subsequent construction of a lunar base.

The desire to be back on the Moon is not only about science.

And U.S. plans? A few weeks ago, the Trump administration asked NASA to assess the possibility of a return trip to the Moon for two astronauts, with a projection date of 2019. If successful, it will be the first travel in deep space — that is to say past the international space station — in the 45 years since the last Apollo mission in December 1972. NASA has also announced this month its plans to move ahead with plans to construct a human outpost in cislunar space to be deployed in parallel with the International Space Station.

But no less consequential are the private initiatives. Elon Musk's high-profile SpaceX program aims to launch two private citizens for a space trip around the Moon by the end of 2018. If SpaceX will respect the deadlines, beating NASA, this will be not only the first human mission beyond the Earth orbit, but also the first mission privately funded.

A SpaceX Falcon9 rocket blasts off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 19 — Photo: Red Huber/TNS/ZUMA

Then, there is prime Musk rival, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is full-steam ahead with Blue Origin, where the space vehicle currently in development, the New Glenn, will be launched as a plane in cislunar space, between the Earth and Moon. Bezos recently presented a white paper to NASA leadership to propose the development of an Amazon-like commercial delivery service to transport goods, experiment materials and housing modules to the Moon by the middle of the next decade.

"It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay," Bezos wrote.

The United Launch Alliance, meanwhile, has also presented its Cislunar-1,000 vision, aimed at having 1,000 people living and working in the space by 2045.

Why the Moon? The scientific interest is mainly linked to its soil, aged around 3 to 4.5 billion years. Except for Mercury, almost inaccessible for us, the Moon is the only place where an inestimable treasure on the evolution of the solar system has been preserved.

But the desire to be back on the Moon is not only about science. Being able to set foot on Mars, not to mention permanent colonies built some 140 million miles away, is still only a dream. Risks are extraordinarily high and the technology needed to make it possible far from developed. The Moon, instead, is reachable: about a three-day trip away. The technological progress and the experience gained in the last decades have led us within reach of establishing permanent human colonies. This would result in tourism as well as rare resources extractions. The Moon also has another advantage: It is a project that can be realized within the timeframe of politics, as the resources needed to take 239,000 miles can be projected in the orbit of an electoral mandate. The next giant step for humanity is looking closer every day.

*This article was originally written in Italian by our Worldcrunch iQ expert contributor Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency. It was translated by iQ language contributor Cristina Covone.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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