It has been nearly forty years since mankind last set foot on the Moon, and with the recent cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program it looks like it will still be quite some time before we see another manned lunar mission.
However, the European Space Agency have proposed a Lunar Lander mission, which will be an important stepping stone for a European lunar expedition by astronauts.
The Lunar Lander, which will hopefully launch in 2018, will bypass the Apollo landing sites at the equator and head for the South Pole. The exciting results from NASA’s LCROSS mission in 2009 showed the existence of water and other volatile material in a plume of gas ejected from an impact at the South Pole. (Volatile elements are those which vaporise under relatively low temperatures, such as water, nitrogen and sulphur.)
Thus volatile material can be obtained by heating the lunar soil, known as regolith. Extracting these useful materials from the lunar surface would be vital if a human base were ever to be built in the future. This is because launching heavy craft from Earth is expensive, so having some much needed materials waiting for us on the Moon would be a big bonus. The South Pole is also a good target for new experiments as the high amount of sunlight in this area will allow the Lander to mainly rely on solar power.
Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University, who has experience in analysing Apollo lunar samples, heads a team that will design the Lunar Volatiles Resource Analysis Package (L-VRAP). The L-VRAP will help to determine just how much water there is on the Moon by on-site analysis. Aside from the obvious advantages of having water on location for a potential human base, the components of water (hydrogen and oxygen) could be separated via electrolysis and used to make rocket fuel.
Analysing the water content and other volatile materials are not the only objectives of the proposed Lunar Lander. The Lander must first safely and precisely touch down on terrain that is strewn with mountains and deep craters. It will then begin to monitor the surrounding area and determine just how significant the potential health risks are to future human explorers.
The Lander will examine the properties of the lunar dust, which is toxic and can cause respiratory problems. It will also monitor radiation levels on the Moon. Without the protective magnetic field of the Earth, radiation can become a serious problem for astronauts. For example, the high energy particles that are emitted during times of high solar activity could be a health risk.
Europe’s Lunar Lander will therefore be a vital and valuable step in preparing for humans to return to live and work on the Moon.
Reporter: Amanda Doyle