Lunar exploration - Potential UK and NASA collaboration

Ref No: 02/08

The British National Space Centre (BNSC) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have today issued a report from the Joint Working Group (JWG) on lunar exploration that outlines next steps in possible UK - US space exploration co-operation.

A key area of co-operation under consideration is a mission to understand the Moon's structure, listen for 'Moonquakes' and trial the lunar cell-phone network of the future.

The JWG report identified two potential elements of collaboration:

Joint Working Group report on lunar co-operation
  • the implementation of a UK-led robotic lunar mission, such as the Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecoms Experiment (MoonLITE) mission;
  • the development of science instruments and technology needed for mid-term robotic and human exploration activities.

Commenting on the report, Professor Keith Mason, CEO Science and Technology Facilities Council, and Chairman of the UK Space Board (BNSC's governing body), said: "This joint report represents a milestone in our co-operation with NASA whilst building upon our longstanding collaboration in such highly successful science missions as Swift, Stereo, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Cassini. The proposed missions provide an opportunity to harness the UK's world-class expertise in small satellite, communication and robotic technologies focused on exploration of the Moon."

MoonLITE is a proposed UK-led small robotic mission to the Moon. It comprises a satellite which would travel to the Moon, enter its orbit and then release three or four 'penetrators' - small missile-like vehicles - distributed over the Moon's surface. Each penetrator would impact at high speed and embed instruments just under the Moon's surface designed to reveal the interior structure of the Moon. The satellite orbiter would then act as a telecommunications relay station between the surface penetrators and Earth during its 1 year life.

MoonLITE would deliver important new science about the Moon's interior and history while also testing the space communications network needed by future robotic and human explorers. The US and UK have enjoyed a long history of successful space co-operation. MoonLITE would build on this success and allow both partners the opportunity to take advantage of their particular strengths. NASA is considering several technologies and experiments as potential US contributions to the UK mission.

The proposed next steps involve an international scientific 'peer-review' and a more detailed technical study of MoonLITE leading to a definitive cost estimate before a decision to go-ahead is taken. The launch date for MoonLITE is scheduled for no earlier than 2012.

Professor Mason added: "This joint report between the UK and NASA, coupled with the UK's major role in ESA's Aurora programme of planetary exploration and our involvement in helping to shape a Global Exploration Strategy, means the UK is fully exploiting and strategically maximising its technological and scientific strengths in space exploration."

The BNSC-NASA JWG originated from a Joint Statement of Intent for Cooperation in the Field of Space Exploration signed by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and UK Director General for Science and Innovation Sir Keith O'Nions on April 19, 2007, in Washington, DC.

Download the Joint Working Group report on lunar co-operation.

Note to Editors

The BNSC-NASA JWG also identified other areas for potential longer term NASA-BNSC lunar cooperation, which could include:

Searching for terrestrial material on the Moon

Scientists already have material blasted-off the early Moon and Mars that have been brought to the Earth as meteorites. In the same way, they believe that material from the ancient Earth may have been transported to the Moon. Such material no longer exists on Earth, so understanding more about the early Earth may depend on properly exploring the Moon.

Rover design and autonomous systems

The UK is leading the design of a rover for Mars exploration through the ESA 'ExoMars' project but pooling expertise with NASA could develop more advanced robots needed for lunar exploration.

Examining the Earth's magnetosphere from the Moon

The Earth is protected from solar radiation by its magnetic 'bubble' which is continually changing with time. A Moon-based observatory looking back at the Earth could observe the whole 'picture' continuously.


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