Lunar lander aims for pole position

Artist's impression of the ESA lunar south pole explorer

Artist's impression of the European Space Agency's unmanned lunar south pole explorer, due for launch in 2018.

The first mission aiming to visit the Moon’s south pole has taken a significant step forward, with the European Space Agency signing a design study contract with the EADS-Astrium company in Berlin, Germany.

The unmanned mission is intended to land in the mountainous and heavily cratered terrain of the lunar south pole in 2018.

This could 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.

To reach the surface safely, the lander must precisely find its way to a mountain peak or crater rim, carefully avoiding boulders and steep slopes, before gently setting down to take in one of the most spectacular views in the Solar System.

The Moon is a favoured target for the human exploration missions outlined in the ‘Global Exploration Strategy’ by 14 space agencies around the world. The strategy supports international space exploration and calls for further studies of the Moon and Mars—places where humans will one day live and work.

The new study is important because now, following the preliminary planning and feasibility studies, the mission’s design will be continued and some of the key technologies will be developed and tested for the first time.

First, the most recent topographic data covering the Moon’s south pole will be analysed in detail to find promising landing sites. The target area is poorly understood and only now are scientists beginning to get the information needed to consider landing and operating a mission there.

Then, the robotic lander will be designed down to the level of its various subsystems, such as propulsion and navigation.

The study will culminate in a ‘Preliminary System Requirements Review’ in 2012, which will provide the basis for the final design of the mission and lander.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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