UK science says 'fly me to the Moon'

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Media captionESA 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.

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.