Thursday, December 11, 2014

ESA to explore lunar probe partnership with Russia

Ten years after planning got underway to place an ESA lander on the rim of Shackleton crater, the design of the MoonNEXT probe was improved by development of the ESA's ATV resupply ship. Still the program was scrapped. But, even as tensions continue between European Union  partners and Russia, ESA's managers have agreed to investigate joining forces with Roscosmos in Russia's lunar program, forestalled by loss of partnership with India, the problem-plagued Fregat vehicle and tight budgets [ESA/Astrium].
Elizabeth Gibney

Science ministers in Europe have resurrected plans to explore the Moon’s surface — and the only strategy currently on the table is to join two uncrewed Russian missions. The developments, which follow the shelving of a proposed European Space Agency (ESA) Moon lander two years ago, come amid growing political tensions between Russia and Western nations.

On 2 December, at a meeting in Luxembourg to determine ESA’s policy, the space agency got the go-ahead and funding to investigate “participation in robotic missions for the exploration of the Moon”. Science ministers from the ESA member states did not approve collaboration with Russia specifically, but at the meeting, ESA scientists presented a proposal to join Russia on its missions to put a lander and a rover on the Moon’s south pole.

Money for lunar exploration will come from a pot of €800 million (US$980 million) contributed by ESA’s member states and dedicated to international space exploration; the pot will primarily pay for activities on the International Space Station and the development of a propulsion module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which is eventually designed to carry astronauts to deep space, and was tested on 5 December in an uncrewed space flight.

"There be dragons here," no longer applies to the Moon's nearly always, or permanently, shadowed areas at polar latitudes. The Vision for Space Exploration, before it also was scrapped, developed inertia for a brief second golden age of lunar exploration, and it prioritized scientific goals there.

Above, the state of our knowledge about the Moon's south pole in 1994 is compared with where this knowledge base stands today, illustrating one vast improvement in our understanding of the Moon gained at low cost and with great efficiency
[NASA/GSFC/JPL/DOD/USGS/Caltech/Arizona State University].
In the 45 years since astronauts first walked on the Moon, no European country or space agency has launched a mission to the Moon’s surface. And no lander or astronaut has been to the lunar south pole, a region thought to contain ice and thus deemed a probable spot for any future permanent lunar base. A 12-kilometre-deep crater there might provide access to material from the Moon’s interior, also making it attractive for scientific study, says Ian Crawford, a lunar scientist at Birkbeck, University of London. The ancient material could reveal details of the collision between a Mars-sized planet and early Earth that is thought to have produced the Moon. “The idea that we've ‘been there and done that’ did last for a long time, but that’s gone away now,” says Crawford. “The Moon still has a lot to tell us.”

Read the full article at NATURE, HERE.

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