Europe's space agency wants to do what NASA can't: Fly to moon

NASA wanted to go back to moon but budget will preclude mission

Lunar Lander concept from OHB-System AG
The European Space Agency is moving forward with a plan to land an autonomous spacecraft on the moon by 2017, with the idea a manned vehicle could land there sometime in the future. 

It's a mission NASA had on its roadmap before the current budget debate, but such plans seem doomed now. 

Hot space projects produce cool cosmic discoveries  

The ESA is now seeking proposals for a Lunar Lander that would land on the south polar region of the Moon where possible deposits of water ice, heavily cratered terrain and long periods of sunlight make it ripe for explorers and scientists, the agency stated. 

The space agency said several European space companies have already assessed the various mission options and designs. The next step is 'Phase-B1', which will mature the mission and spacecraft design and examine in detail the demands of landing and working at specific southern lunar sites.

 This 18-month phase will begin this summer, taking the Lunar Lander from a design concept to hardware reality. The goal is for launch by the end of this decade, the ESA stated. 

The ESA said that the lander has two main goals: 

  • To use the latest navigation technology to fly a precise course from lunar orbit to the surface and touch down safely and accurately. On the way down, it must image the surface and recognize dangerous features by itself, using its own 'intelligence'.  
  • To investigate this unique region with a suite of advanced instruments. It will investigate the properties and possible health effects of radiation and lunar dust on future astronauts, and it will examine the soil for signs of resources that could be used by human explorers. 

The agency last year worked with NASA to define technologies that would let humans one day return to the Moon.  At the time the agencies concluded such explorations needed: 

  • fixed and mobile habitation units with integrated life support systems, to give human explorers a safe living environment
  • robotic systems that can act autonomously to prepare for human exploration, and can later work alongside crews during surface operations
  • power generation and storage systems of varying scales to support the energy needs of surface activities, and potentially a human lunar base
  • in situ resource utilization systems that can produce consumables needed by a human crew, such as oxygen and water, from material available on the Moon's surface
  • delivery of cargo and logistics to the lunar surface to support human excursions, mobile surface missions and possibly base operations. 

NASA mind you doesn't preclude its own robotic mission to the moon.  In his broad outline of NASA's budget plan, the space agency's Charles Bolden recently testified that that NASA wants to look at more sustainable and advanced capabilities that will allow Americans to explore the Moon, Mars and other destinations. "This effort will include a flagship demonstration program, with international partners, commercial and other government entities, to demonstrate critical technologies, such as in-orbit propellant transfer and storage, inflatable modules, automated/autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, and other next- generation capabilities....Robotic precursor missions to multiple destinations in the solar system in support of future human exploration, including missions to the Moon, Mars and its moons," Bolden stated. 

What technologies end up being developed is anyone's guess.  

NASA is working with the ESA on all manner of robotic orbiters, landers and exploration devices for a future trip to Mars. 

NASA and the ESA recently agreed to consider the establishment of a new joint initiative to define and implement their scientific, programmatic, and technological goals for the exploration of Mars. 

The program would focus on several launch opportunities with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical, climatological, and other high-priority investigations and aiming at returning samples from Mars in the mid-2020s. 

The envisioned program includes the provision that by 2016, ESA will build what it calls an Entry, Descent, and semi-soft Landing System (EDLS) technology demonstrator and a science/relay orbiter. In 2018, the ESA would also deliver its ExoMars rover equipped with drilling capability. NASA's contribution in 2016 includes a trace gas mapping and imaging scientific payload for the orbiter and the launch and, in 2018 a rover, the EDLS, and rockets for the launch. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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