Looking at the volatile side of the Moon

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This image of the Moon was taken with by Rosetta’s OSIRIS Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) at 07:36 CET on 13 November 2007, about nine hours after Rosetta’s closest approach to Earth during one of its gravity assist manoeuvres.

OSIRIS has been designed to image faint objects, so a neutral density filter was placed in the optical path to reduce the sensitivity of the camera to one fiftieth. The above image was acquired through the far-focus red filter of the camera (750 nanometres).

Credits: ESA ©2007 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

31 May 2011
Four decades after the first Moon landing, our only natural satellite remains a fascinating enigma. Specialists from Europe and the US have been looking at ESA’s proposed Lunar Lander mission to find out how to seek water and other volatile resources.

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The ESA’s lunar lander mission aims to land in the mountainous and heavily cratered terrain of the lunar south pole, possibly in 2018. The region may be a prime location for future human explorers because it offers almost continuous sunlight for power and potential access to vital resources such as water-ice.

New peopulsion technologies are one of the key areas of the ‘Phase-B1’ study, now going on under the leadership of EADS-Astrium Bremen and some of the key technologies will be developed and tested for the first time.

The project will be presented to ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting in 2012 for full approval.

Credits: ESA

Europe is developing the technology for the Lunar Lander mission, a precursor voyage to the Moon in preparation for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

“Our ambition is to see one day a European astronaut working on the Moon,” says ESA’s Bruno Gardini.

Expected to be launched in 2018, the unmanned craft will land near the lunar South Pole.

In Bruno’s words, “It is the mission that will provide Europe with the planetary landing technology of the future.”

Specialists, including prestigious scientists who worked on the Apollo programme, recently gathered at ESA’s ESTEC space technology centre in the Netherlands to discuss the mission.

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The ESA’s lunar lander mission aims to land in the mountainous and heavily cratered terrain of the lunar south pole, possibly in 2018. The region may be a prime location for future human explorers because it offers almost continuous sunlight for power and potential access to vital resources such as water-ice.

The ‘Phase-B1’ study is going on under the leadership of EADS-Astrium Bremen and some of the key technologies will be developed and tested for the first time.

The project will be presented to ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting in 2012 for full approval.

Credits: ESA

The lander’s scientific payload addresses a number of key aspects of the unique environment on the Moon: radiation, dust and volatiles and.

Volatiles, such as water, are those delicate chemical components that under certain conditions would just disappear.

Volatiles may be readily extracted from lunar soil and provide valuable resources such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus or sulphur to aid future human exploration.

Like water, these chemical elements have been implanted by billions of years of exposure to the solar wind and are especially likely to be found at the poles.

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Bruno Gardini, from ESA, has been involved in the Lunar Lander project since 2005. He envisages a European astronaut working on the Moon.

Credits: ESA

“To analyse the volatiles or the water that is all over the Moon in very small quantities, we have to take samples of the materials we find on the surface and analyse them in situ”, says Bruno.

Recent missions have transformed our view of the Moon. This new era of lunar science was well represented by Colin Pillinger. Having begun his career analysing samples of moon rock for the Apollo programme, he is now professor of planetary science at the Open University in the UK.

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Colin Pillinger is a professor at the Open University in the UK.

Credits: ESA

“We certainly don’t know where the water comes from until we get down there and do more experiments. That’s why the Lunar Lander is so important,” notes Prof. Pillinger.

“I play the devil’s advocate,” says Larry Taylor, from the University of Tennessee, a scientist who guided the US astronauts in the quest for samples on the Moon.

“I’m giving my knowledge about lunar soil, something that I’ve been working on for 40 years. I have a different perspective, so I’m saying to the engineers: are you sure you are going to find this?”

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Larry Taylor , from the University of Tennessee, holds a sample of the lunar soil brought back by the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969.

Credits: ESA

Finding the right landing site is also crucial for science. “You have to go to the exact places where we think these valuable resources might be concentrated,” says Prof. Pillinger.

ESA has selected the South Pole as a landing site for two main reasons. First, there are long periods of illumination that would allow the lander to rely on solar power alone.

Secondly, concludes Bruno, “We will go to a very different place from the equatorial regions explored during the Apollo era, giving the scientists the opportunity to do new experiments and get completely new insights.”

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This mosaic of the lunar south pole was obtained with images taken by the Advanced Moon Imaging Experiment (AMIE) on board ESA’s SMART-1.

The pictures were taken between Dec 2005 and March 2006, during lunar southern summer. When obtaining the images, SMART-1 was flying over the south pole at a distance of about 500 km, allowing individual images with small-field (about 50 km across) high resolution views (50 m/pixel).

Each individual image includes areas imaged with colour filters and a more exposed area. The differences have been corrected accordingly to obtain this mosaic. The mosaic, composed of about 40 images obtained over more than 30 orbits, covers an area of about 500 by 150 km. The lunar near-side facing Earth is at the top of the map, while the far-side is at the bottom.

Credits: ESA/SMART-1/Space-X (Space Exploration Institute), ESA/SMART-1/ AMIE camera team

The lunar south pole region is one of the possible reservoirs of the volatile materials.

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