This week, the European space technology company Astrium completed its Phase B1 study of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Lunar Landing Project. The purpose of the study was to evaluate the mission to land a spacecraft on the south pole of the Moon in 2019. That spacecraft would test new technologies, and explore an area of the lunar surface that scientists believe may contain deposits of ice in the permanently shadowed craters.
The 2,000-kilogram (4409.25-lb) spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2019 atop a Soyuz 2.1b booster from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana. It will then spend two to four months using high elliptical orbits to reach the Moon and then enter a low-lunar orbit at an altitude of two kilometers (1.24 mi). It will stay there for up to three months as it waits for the landing window for the lunar south pole, before making its final descent using an automatic navigation system.
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The purpose of the Lunar Lander mission is as a technology demonstrator of ESA’s ability to land a spacecraft on the Moon. Because ESA lacks the technology to use radiothermal generators, the Lander will be equipped with solar panels similar to that of the Polaris prospector rover. The Lander will deploy experiments including a small rover as part of a six-month mission to explore the polar region and examine soil samples. The latter is particularly important because of the suspected presence of ice at the lunar south pole. If this can be confirmed, it could provide future colonists with water for both living and as a source of fuel for spacecraft.
The Phase B1 study carried out by primary contractor Astrium confirmed the mission schedule and worked out the key technologies needed for a soft landing. These included how to automatically detect and avoid hazards, development of autonomous visual navigation systems, and advanced propulsion systems. In addition, the navigation system hardware was tested on a realistic simulated lunar landscape at the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen, Germany. The total cost of the Lunar Lander project is estimated at 500 million euros (US$647 million).
The next phase for Lunar Lander is the November ESA ministerial conference, where it will be decided how to proceed with the project. Following that, Astrium will conduct its Phase B2 study to complete the spacecraft design.
The ESA video below outlines the Lunar Lander mission.