Giant leap for UK Moon missions

Britain took a giant leap last night towards sending UK astronauts to the Moon and Mars. They announced a deal with NASA to become directly involved with America’s Vision for Space Exploration that will send humans to explore the solar system.

Impression of moonbaseSigning the agreement is one small step for the UK Government. It promises to study ways in which the British National Space Centre and NASA might work together on robotic missions “to the Moon and beyond”.

But NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has made it clear to Skymania News that he wants Brits to join American astronauts in walking on the Moon and helping set up lunar bases.

He recently told me: “The invitation absolutely is there for the UK to join us in those journeys. I hope that that level of participation would go so far as to include astronauts. If it does, then of course we will participate in training them.”

There is a busy campaign in Britain to train our own astronauts.

In January, UK space chiefs announced plans to send robot probes to the Moon in 2010. One mission, called Moonraker, would land on the surface and study the rocks. An alternative, called MoonLITE, would go into orbit around the Moon and fire javelin-like missiles into its crust to find out what lies deeper in the lunar soil.

The US-UK deal was signed in Washington last night. Science and Innovation Minister Malcolm Wicks said today: “During my recent meeting with NASA’s Administrator Dr Michael Griffin, I was keen for the USA and UK to co-operate on exactly this sort of exciting endeavour.

“I am delighted that this important agreement has been signed between our two space agencies which could provide an opportunity to harness the UK’s world-class expertise in small satellite and robotic technologies.”

Professor Keith Mason, Chairman of the UK Space Board, which is BNSC’s governing body, said UK expertise could help provide navigation, communications and analysis of the lunar surface. He said today: “This is a significant milestone for future cooperation with NASA.

“NASA is committed to a long-term lunar exploration programme leading to a scientific research outpost, likely to be near the lunar South Pole, by 2020. In advance of this, permanent robotic communications and navigation infrastructure will need to be installed in lunar orbit in parallel with scientific reconnaissance of the surface. And this is where UK industry and academia could play a vital part.

“We have unique expertise in small satellites and miniaturised instruments which could provide a low cost lunar telecoms capability, whilst simultaneously deploying probes to the Moon’s surface in order to characterise the surface and interior.”