Sunday, March 16, 2008

ESA: more about its Lunar Rover

As the ESA's MoonNext project continues development, the BBC reports their chief scientist Dr. Bernard Foing is giving out more details of its lander and rover combination.

MoonNext presently includes plans to launch atop a Russian Soyuz with only a 100 kilo payload perhaps in 2015. Planners are aiming for 2015 and in situ experiments and an ascent stage carrying a rover to deploy from a piggy-back position, as the Soviet lunakod package did coincident to America's manned landings between 1969 and 1972.

In light of recent news the lunar regolith may be capable of becoming soil, supportive of microbial life, ESA's lander will include a life-sciences experiment designed to introduce bacteria to the "lunar environment" to test exposure to cosmic waves.

This last concept seems strange since depressurizing one manned lunar module on the moon forty years ago added a full five percent to what little there was to the Moon's atmosphere, and an experiment exposing bacteria on Earth's Moon to test their reaction to Cosmic Rays would not be very different than taking them outside the International Space Station.

(Of course, it has also come to light that bacterium thrive perhaps four times better in space-borne experiments than on Earth.)

The small size proposed for ESA's lander/rover may be possible by means of solar power, which may also be the reason Foing told the BBC they were looking closely at the Lunar South Pole as a landing zone. Illumination, or "insolation" demonstrations, based on topographic information from radar data collected at Goldstone showed no hoped for "peaks of eternal sunshine," but it did show candidates for that distinction, below around 85 degrees south latitude, that come close.

The Moon's south polar region has a cluster of overlapping high spots at Shackleton Crater, which Goldstone also uncovered as being more than a mile deep and very likely to be permanently shadowed, with weak signals of hydrogen isotopes revealing a real possibility of a very frozen water slurry resulting from cometary bombardment.

The long-running peak of Malapert Mountain also has been revealed by Goldstone's radar data to be far higher than expected and illuminated 90 percent of the time, and at extreme libration, always within light of sight of Earth, or at least it's southern hemisphere which, at times, may linger over the horizon as a half-Earth-set.

Not just important to the needs of astronauts for fuel, air, material and as a plain water source, scientists also want to know how old that water might be, if present. If as ancient as the heavily bombarded region Goldstone confirmed was there might be, it would follow that cometary bombardment was persistent over a very long period of time in solar-system history, with little affect on the moon's inclination to the sun.

If relatively new, it may indicate as few other areas may, a cycle of lunar bombardment still underway or over a time in the past.

Because a foray into Shackleton's depths would require a rover to share eternal sunset, Foing told the 39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference a week ago their 2015 lander may deploy a "harpoon" to sample the theorized frost at the bottom.

Such a harpoon would, of course, almost have to increase the weight beyond what the ESA is planning for this first lunar lander still seven years away.

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