October 24, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA
BREMEN, Germany — A robotic Moon lander that incorporates technologies and hardware developed for Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) could visit the lunar south pole by 2019 if the European Space Agency (ESA) approves funding for continued development of the project at a key budget meeting next month.
Prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation says the six-month mission is estimated to cost €500 million ($650 million), including €300-350 million for development, manufacturing, test, launch and operations. The company 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 an additional €70-100 million for continued design and development, a decision that needs to come next month when the agency’s ruling council meets at the ministerial level to set a multiyear spending plan.
Peter Kyr, head of robotic exploration at Astrium, says the money would pay for continued technology studies culminating in a preliminary design review by mid-2015. If ESA gives the green light to the project, council minsters would need to approve additional funding roughly 18 months later, when ministers likely will meet again to address outstanding funding and policy differences not resolved in November.
Astrium officials say at least 11 countries are interested in supporting 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.
Ralf Jaumann, head of planetary geology at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research, says the Moon remains an important destination for scientists despite the trove of data gathered from the Apollo missions.
“We have never been at the backside of the moon,” Jaumann says. “We have just a few probes on the front and we don’t know much about the inside.”
Jaumann says at the backside of the Moon, near the lunar south pole, is a huge crater so deep it leads almost to the satellite’s mantle. “The Moon is like a geological inventory allowing us to look back several billion years,” he says.