Humans could be living on the Moon within 20 years, says a leading lunar scientist.
By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online science reporter
According to Bernard Foing of the European Space Agency, the technology will soon exist to set up an outpost for visiting astronauts.
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However, political will is needed to inspire the public to support the initiative.
"We believe that technologically it's possible," the project scientist on Europe's first Moon mission, Smart-1, told BBC News Online.
"But it will depend in the end on the political will to go and establish a human base for preparing for colonisation of the Moon or to be used as a refuge for the human species."
The unmanned Smart-1 craft, which is due to be launched in early September, is flying to the Moon to demonstrate that Europe has the technology for future deep space science missions.
Its main form of propulsion is an ion engine powered by solar-electrical means rather than conventional chemical fuel.
When it arrives at the Moon, after a 15-month voyage, it will search for water-ice in craters and determine the abundance of minerals on the surface.
The craft will make an x-ray map of the moon
In the process, it will look for landing sites for future lunar exploration such as a sample return mission planned by the US space agency (Nasa) for 2009.
"The Moon could be used as a test bed for future human missions," says Sarah Dunkin, a leading British scientist on the Smart-1 project.
"To actually live on another world would be quite a test of technology as well as human physiology. We don't know what the long-term effects of living in a low gravity environment would be."
Any long term plans to set up a lunar base are bound to rely on international co-operation.
They could include India and China, two nations which have recently pledged to send space craft back to the Moon.
However, under current policy, the UK would not be included in any manned mission because it does not support human space exploration.