Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, in collaboration with ESA, its European counterpart, is preparing a mission to put a lander on the Moon in 2020 in order to investigate the possibility of establishing a permanent lunar base.
The mission, Luna 27, will see a robotic lander delivered to the lunar South Pole, specifically an area known as the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) Basin. There are areas on the edge of the SPA Basin that are kept in total darkness, so scientists expect to find an abundance of water and other materials here due to the limited effects of solar radiation.
The presence of water on the Moon has been discussed since the Apollo missions, but it was undeniably confirmed in 2009 when NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter/LCROSS showed that water is present as small ice crystals mixed in the lunar soil. Not only that, but it was found to cover almost a quarter of the surface of some craters.
The availability of water is not only necessary for the long-term survival of the inhabitants of the planned lunar base, but it is also required to produce fuels that could be used for missions to other worlds, namely Mars.
Luna 27 will study this peculiar region of the Moon and assess the potential use of lunar materials obtained there. As mission costs tend to scale with payload, or the amount carried by a craft, knowing exactly what can be generated in situ would make the mission significantly cheaper and slash timescales.
Pending approval, the planned mission should include a state-of-the-art drill capable of penetrating the lunar surface up to a depth of 2 meters (6.6 feet) in its search for interesting substances. The drilled material will be analyzed by the lander in real-time on the Moon; water is the primary objective, but the presence of other substances is of significant commercial and scientific interest. The instrument should be able to estimate the abundances of the elements and how easily they can be mined.
Commercially speaking, an important test the Luna 27 lander could perform is to quantify the amount of helium-3 on our satellite. Helium-3 is an isotope, or form, of helium that can be used in nuclear fusion power plants. Scientists also hope to find some interesting clues on the formation of the Solar System as chemicals in the SPA Basin have been shielded from the Sun almost since the formation of the Moon.
The results will undoubtedly have an impact on proceeding lunar missions, but regardless of what scientists find, the Moon is going to play an important role in the future of space travel.
[H/T: BBC News]