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15/7/2020  
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R&D
European Space Agency (ESA)

Europe and Russia plan a joint mission to the moon


Science ministers in Europe have resurrected plans to explore the Moon´s surface—and the only strategy currently on the table is to join two uncrewed Russian missions. The developments, which follow the shelving of a proposed European Space Agency (ESA) Moon lander two years ago, come amid growing political tensions between Russia and Western nations.
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The idea, put forward by the European Space Agency (ESA) at a meeting to discuss the space agency’s activities in Luxembourg on 2nd December, proposes that the European Space Agency (ESA) will co-operate with the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos, by contributing equipment to two planned Russian space missions over the next six years. Science ministers from the ESA member states did not approve collaboration with Russia specifically, but at the meeting, ESA scientists presented a proposal to join Russia on its missions to put a lander and a rover on the Moon’s south pole.

Money for lunar exploration will come from a pot of €800 million  contributed by ESA’s member states and dedicated to international space exploration; the pot will primarily pay for activities on the International Space Station and the development of a propulsion module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which is eventually designed to carry astronauts to deep space, and was tested on December 5 in an uncrewed space flight.

In the 45 years since astronauts first walked on the Moon, no European country or space agency has launched a mission to the Moon’s surface. And no lander or astronaut has been to the lunar south pole, a region thought to contain ice and thus deemed a probable spot for any future permanent lunar base. A 12-kilometer-deep crater there might provide access to material from the Moon’s interior, also making it attractive for scientific study, says Ian Crawford, a lunar scientist at Birkbeck, University of London. The ancient material could reveal details of the collision between a Mars-sized planet and early Earth that is thought to have produced the Moon.

The group’s proposal, aired for the first time at the Luxembourg meeting, is that ESA contribute to Roscosmos’s Luna-Resource Lander, also known as Luna 27, which is scheduled for launch in 2019, as well as the Lunar Sample Return, planned for the early 2020s. The first will study the lunar soil and atmosphere at the south pole; the second would bring samples back to Earth. ESA would provide precision landing and communications equipment, as well as drill and analysis instruments.

The ministerial decision, in principle, means that ESA can start to fund efforts to incorporate these technologies into the mission—although whether it will do so has still to be agreed. The preliminary phase is estimated to cost up to €50 million. The total price would be much higher, perhaps in the hundreds of millions.

ESA has said that pursuing lunar missions is strategically important, not only to secure access to the Moon’s surface for European scientists, but also to ensure that European expertise and technology is involved in future lunar exploration—including, ultimately, international crewed missions and even a permanent lunar base.

NASA currently has no plans to land on the Moon (Orion will be designed to take astronauts into lunar orbit), but Russia, China, Japan and several private companies are making plans to put rovers on the body. Representatives from these nations have more than hinted that permanent Moon bases and human exploration would be the next steps. 

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