November 19, 2012
Credit: Credit: Thales Alenia Space
Amy Svitak Bremen, Germany, and Turin, Italy
Europe is not known for lofty ambitions in the field of space exploration. In the grand scheme of things, a robotic mission to the red planet, known as ExoMars, is pretty much it.
That is why some European governments, Germany and Italy among them, see an opening to invest in exploration-enabling technologies that could lead to future robotic—and ultimately human—missions to the Moon.
When the European Space Agency's (ESA's) ruling council meets this week to hash out a multiyear spending plan, one item high on Germany's agenda is funding continued development of a robotic Moon lander that incorporates technologies and hardware for Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). The lander, developed by prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation, could visit the lunar south pole by 2019 if ESA approves the estimated €500 million ($650 million) mission, including €300-350 million for development, manufacturing, test, launch and operations.
Astrium recently completed a preliminary system requirements review of the capability under a €13 million ESA study contracted in 2010, 71% of which was funded by Germany with participation from Spain, Canada, Belgium, Portugal and the Czech Republic.
The project's next phase calls for ESA member states to pony up another €70-100 million for continued design and development. They must decide on that next month when ESA ministers meet to set a multiyear spending plan.
Astrium officials say at least 11 countries want to support the next phase of the lander's development, and that the project's Phase B2 could go forward with just 70% of proposed funding.
Designed to launch aboard a Soyuz rocket equipped with a Fregat upper stage, the lander is expected to have a mass of 2,300 kg (5,070 lb.) at separation. The half-year mission would use only solar energy for operation on the lunar surface, where the lander's robotic arm would place a small Moon rover and various stationary experiments on the surface to conduct scientific research. Results gathered in situ would be transmitted to Earth to provide an initial understanding of the Moon's polar region, as well as supply basic information for future human exploration missions.