State Department Kicks Off International Lunar Year Discussions

State Department Kicks Off International Lunar Year Discussions

The State Department is starting discussions with U.S. stakeholders to organize an International Lunar Year. The ILY will build on the International Geophysical Year that heralded the beginning of the Space Age, the International Space Year of the early 1990s, and other international “years” that coordinate global scientific efforts and educate the public.

The White House proposed the ILY in the November 2022 National Cislunar Science and Technology Strategy produced by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The report lays out a vision and strategy for U.S. leadership in cislunar space, including the Moon. The ILY would “foster developments such as the coordinated use of Lunar data centers, coordinated Moon-based research … and similar joint ‘leave behind’ capabilities.” Together with the Artemis Accords, the ILY would show how lunar activities can be carried out in the interests of “all nations, including developing countries” and enhance cooperation.

Excerpt from the Biden Admnistration’s National Cislunar Science & Technology Strategy, Office of Science and Technology Policy, November 2022.

Cislunar space essentially is the region between the Earth and the Moon and around the Moon.

The State Department is taking the lead for the U.S. government in building support. Its ILY website explains why this is the right time.

As multiple nations and commercial entities plan a near-term return to the Moon on an unprecedented scale, now is the right time to consider planning an International Lunar Year. A sustained program might combine elements of public outreach and scientific collaboration to fashion a vibrant interdisciplinary and multilateral effort, demonstrating how lunar exploration can be responsible, peaceful, and sustainable, as we begin to establish an enduring presence at the Moon. — State Department

In an August 11 press release, the Department said it brought together representatives from a number of domestic stakeholders to discuss options last month. Participants included NASA, NOAA, OSTP, the National Science Foundation, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the American Astronomical Society, John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Associated Universities Inc., and several universities.

The ILY website notes that international science years are “typically declared by the United Nations General Assembly,” although the press release doesn’t explictly say that’s what the State Department plans to do. It says only it will “continue discussions and public outreach over the next year to build national and international support.” The State Department did not respond by press time to a request for clarification on its plans.

Since 1959, the United Nations has designated or endorsed almost 100 international years for many specialties including the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, the 2007-2008 International Polar Year and the 1992 International Space Year.

Before that, such years were the work of the scientific community. The July 1, 1957-December 31, 1958 International Geophysical Year, or IGY, was arranged through the International Council of Scientific Unions to coordinate global observations of geophysical phenomena. The Soviet Union and the United States both announced they would launch satellites as part of the IGY and both did. The Soviet launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 inaugurated the Space Age, with the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, achieving orbit on January 31, 1958.

The National Academies held a series of events in 2008 and published “Forging the Future of Space Science: The Next 50 Years” to celebrate the IGY’s 50th anniversary, which is also the anniversary of the Academies’ Space Science Board, now the Space Studies Board, which emanated from the IGY.

The State Department was vague about exactly what it has in mind for the ILY, saying only that it could be a “one-to-two year celebration … later in the decade,” but at least one member of the scientific community is proposing it take place during the 70th anniversary of the IGY.

Bobby Braun, Head, Space Exploration Sector, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. Credit: JHUAPL website.

Bobby Braun, Head of the Space Exploration Sector of JHU’s Applied Physics Lab, encouraged participants in the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium in April to champion the idea of holding an ILY from July 1, 2027-December 31, 2028 to celebrate the IGY’s anniversary. There’s a connection between the Applied Physics Lab and the IGY. Renowned space scientist James Van Allen, who discovered the Van Allen radiation belts that encircle Earth, is credited with originating the idea of IGY while he worked there.

Perhaps this timeframe, July 1, 2027 through the end of 2028, which would coincide with the 70th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year, perhaps that should be designated the International Lunar Year and perhaps this group should take that to the various science councils around the world and champion that idea and see if we can make it happen.  The International Geophysical Year did not happen because a particular government dictated that it would happen. It happened because of grassroots support from people just like you. — Bobby Braun

One milestone about that time will be completion of the U.S.-Canadian-European-Japanese Gateway space station in lunar orbit, part of the Artemis program. A number of U.S. robotic probes will launch beginning this year, the Artemis II crew will fly around the Moon next year, and the first U.S. astronauts will return to the lunar surface around 2025-2026, but routine human expeditions to the surface will depart from Gateway once it’s available.

The United States is hardly alone in the resurgence of interest in the Moon. China, Russia, India and Japan are already sending robotic probes there along with commercial companies and non-profits. The Moon is a busy place and will be more so by 2027.

International years like this can be useful both in coordinating scientific efforts and educating the public about them.

In an email interview, Harvey Meyerson, the “father” of the International Space Year, told that public education was “a primary objective” of the ISY “on the same level as scientific research.” It also led to the creation of the Space Agency Forum for the International Space Year (SAFISY) of national space agencies that coordinated projects and continued for several more years.

The ISY celebrated the IGY’s 35th anniversary with the theme “Love Your Planet” featuring E.T. from the beloved movie of that name.

E.T. hugs planet Earth. Credit: National Air and Space Museum collection.

Another international year is also in the planning stages. The planetary defense community wants an International Year of Planetary Defense in 2029 when the asteroid Apophis makes a very close approach to Earth.

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