UK science says 'fly me to the Moon'


ESA animation of the planned lunar mission

British scientists and engineers want a piece of the Moon.

They're keen to participate in the European Space Agency's (Esa) Lunar Lander mission which will attempt to put down on the body's southern pole later this decade.

The lander will be unmanned but it will do the kind of experiments that would help prepare for a human mission at some future date - checking the local environment for hazards and looking for possible resources in the regolith, or "soil".

Esa will soon ask member states to declare their interest in the project, and the UK will have to decide if it wants to take part and, if so, the level of financial investment it is prepared to make.

The British lunar science community and industry recently held a meeting in London to mould their position.

They know they will have to make a strong case to the UK Space Agency (UKSA), which represents Britain at Esa.

The UKSA will have a limited pot of cash to put on the table in Europe, and other interests and activities will be competing for a share.

"We're going through a process where we're allowing all the different communities to make their cases for the programmes they want to be involved in," explained Dr Sue Horne from the UKSA.

"Through December, we'll be assessing those so that over the course of the following months, we can have some hard negotiation with Esa with clear ideas of what we want," she told me.

The Lunar Lander project will be led by Germany and is expected to cost somewhere in the region of 600-700 million euros.


Lunar lander concept (EADS Astrium)
  • To launch on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana no later than 2018
  • It would demonstrate automated guidance, navigation and control
  • South polar landing site would ensure several months of operation
  • Landed mass on the order of 700-800kg with a 40-60kg science payload
  • 10kg of 'mobile' and some static experiments would be placed on the surface
  • Height (with legs) of 3.4m; Diameter of 2.5m; Footprint radius of 5.6m

The spacecraft would have a mass just shy of a tonne and would have the primary goal of demonstrating an automated precision landing technology. That's to say, the probe would have to put itself down with no help from controllers on Earth. This would involve scanning the surface for hazards (boulders, steep slopes, deep fissures, and the like) and making an independent decision on where the safest place would be to land. The current idea is to aim for the rim of Shackleton Crater.

If the tricky landing is successful, it would give Esa the kit of parts it could then use on missions to land on other objects in the Solar System - other moons, asteroids, etc.

UK scientists and industry are already helping to spec some of the instrumentation for the lander, but if that work is to be turned into prominent investigator roles and contracts to build hardware then the UKSA will have to commit serious money to the project.

The "cheque writing" would take place at the next major meeting of European space ministers - Esa's usually triennial Council of Ministers. That might happen at the end of next year, or more likely, bearing in mind the state of some member states' finances right now, at the beginning of 2013.

Given the way these things work, even a minor role for Britain would probably cost in excess of 20 million euros - and of course the UK lunar community would be hoping for more than just a back seat ride.

There is no doubt the Moon has become sexy again - a great place to go do science. This stems in the most part from recent observations by orbiting spacecraft that indicate very fine films of water coat the particles that make up the lunar dirt; and that some dark craters might even hold large quantities of water-ice.

"The Earth and Moon are the same age, but the Moon being a small planetary body - its own internal geological processes have largely shut down," said Dr Ian Crawford from Birkbeck, University of London.

"At first sight that might seem to make the Moon a boring object, but it actually makes it crucially important. The fact that its own geological processes largely shut down so long ago means the relatively accessible near-surface lunar environment provides the record for the earliest geological evolution of a terrestrial planet, that more complicated bodies like the Earth have long since lost."

In other words - we go to the Moon to learn about the Earth. Rocks on our planet are constantly recycled; the evidence we have of what our world was like more than four billion years ago is extremely sparse - just some mineral grains called zircons that are trapped inside much younger rocks.

It's entirely possible that lying on the Moon's surface waiting to be discovered are large Earth rocks (meteorites), blasted off this world when it was just a toddler.

"I hear it said all the time that, '40 years on from Apollo, we know everything and we've done everything'," said Dr Mahesh Anand from the Open University. "Well, yes, we've done quite a lot, but there are still so many outstanding questions. In fact, there are more questions today about the Moon than there were during Apollo."

And he told me: "There is significant interest here in the UK to study the Moon, both from a science perspective and from industry, which would get contracts from Esa to build equipment and instruments for this lander."

Take a look at the animated movie at the top of the page which illustrates Esa's proposed lunar lander mission. And I'll be writing about other European projects in the coming months that will require important decisions from the UKSA on where British space priorities should be focused.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Of course the Moon is far from boring. In a way George Bushes Constellation plan wasn't so stupid and the Moon still makes a very good stepping stone for going further. The thing that is still so bizarre to me is the money, 15 to 20 billion was the NASA estimate that 'broke the bank'. The UK alone could afford that - so could at least a dozen other countries, Brazil, India, China, Russia, Japan..

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Time and resources spent in reconnaisance are never wasted. Sooner or later we will have to start harvesting solar system resources as our planetary resources are used up. The moon will be an excellent stepping stone along that path. The only disappointment for a patriotic englishman is that the next foot on the moon will probably be Chinese, though this wont stop me cheering them on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    In Defence of this mission, note that the 6 Apollo landings were restricted in sites to land due to the limitations of the system, they never went near the Lunar Poles.
    In fact much of the Southern Polar region was unmapped until later orbiters in the 1990's.
    So that region is unexplored, The Moon is far from 'boring'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    An unmanned lunar probe? Really? Has there ever been a space agency more boring that ESA?

    What is the point of this!? Spend a billion euros to answer what amounts to a few dull and unimportant questions about a ball of rock? We should be investing in something useful and exciting, like manned spaceflight or working out how to mine asteroids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I'm sorry, I just don't get the point of this. Now if they were to design a small lander with all the bells and whistles, build a few thousand of them cheaply using mass production and send them all over the moon then use the same technology for Jupiter's moons, etc. that would give plenty of bang for each buck. This one-off bespoke mission mentality keeps space expensive and us in the dark.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    14. USA and USSR sent missions in the 1960's with the USSR going into the early 70's.
    While the new technology now will hugely enhance the science you have to think, 'an unmanned Lunar lander launched by a Soyuz. The Beatles at no.1, Wilson in Downing Street, LBJ in the White House, mini skirts, Vietnam and a Cold war'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Hasn't another country already landed on the moon? A few decades ago?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Secondly, cover the outer casing of all craft with a gelatinous layer of water and lead mixture that both absorbs impact, self seals any ruptures and also absorbs radiation. Simple.
    Btw, a MRI or The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer could be put at both the pole of Mars and with a nuclear generator for power, we as humans can give mars back it's magnetic field and habitable These are UK technologies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Everyone constantly harps on about how interplanetary and interstellar travel would expose humans to various deep space radiation. Two simple solutions, the first was made here in the UK, The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, put one of these in the nose section and tail section of the craft and make an artificial magno-sphere to protect the ship the same as the earth is protected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Whatever decisions are eventually made, I would like to see more emphasis on wider, free dissemination of (usable) raw data obtained by publicly funded missions. It's good PR, and in this day and age there seems little excuse for not posting technical data on the internet.

    Contrast that with computer climate models that are paid for with public money, but not available for public inspection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    This is exactly the sort of project we should be supporting in times of economic hardship - the Apollo programme caused the economy to grow by 14 times the amount it cost. When we stop being curious, we'll have stopped being human.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    duckpond, I'm sure there's a lot we don't know and a sample would surely be worth getting. Some bacteria thrive in solid rock or ice on Earth. Apollo found that some could survive a trip into space. Could anything live in lunar ice? The Martian atmosphere is scarcely more hospitable, and the Moon has the advantage of being closest to the only place we know where life does exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @DAVE and @T_20 According to current theory, at the time of the Moon's formation, Earth was lifeless. Life would never have evolved on the Moon, since it has never had an atmosphere. The opportunity to retrieve and analyse material from the early solar system is intriguing, though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Dave, you're saying that 4 billion year old living fossils would not be interesting?

    It is also possible that life on Earth was seeded by Martian meteorites, or vice versa, or by comets from the same origin. It's a bit soon to be getting purist about exobiology!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Why the rather flippant title? Is that how the BBC sees British science: something to joke about rather than take seriously? No wonder we're rapidly becoming scientifically and mathematically illiterate, as a nation. We don't see science as being at all important, even when begging for the latest high-tech gadgets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @T_20 - wasn't the moon formed from an impact with the earth tearing off a large chunk ? If there are any life signs left on the moon, they would have been from earth & not lunar origins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    @Smallvizier I think if I said that I might get tomatoes thrown at me from certain directions. I have to say, however, that I am fearful for the amount of money that will be promised by all member states at the next Esa ministerial. Some nations are in deep financial trouble, as we know, and they may decide that investment in hi-tech has to wait.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3. myself thinking there... it's Bayes' theorem...

    Mars is more likely to have life (say, twice as likely), but it's very hard to prove it is there. On the other hand, if lunar slush contains any life, a sample-and-return mission would be almost sure to find it and such a mission is far easier to accomplish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I bet they find traces of life on the Moon before Mars. Any takers? It's got to be worth a look. So much cheaper and easier to get there, and with water present...


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