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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 08:15 GMT
Britain plans first Moon mission
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent

Penetrator mission (SSTL)
The instruments would be fired from orbit
The UK could soon have its first mission to the Moon - an orbiting spacecraft that would fire instruments into the lunar surface.

The "penetrators" would yield new information about the rocky interior.

The venture has been considered by Britain's astronomy funding agency, PParc, and has been presented to European partners.

The concept is the work of a consortium of space interests, including Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).

SSTL's founder and chief executive, Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, says the costs of space exploration have fallen sufficiently for the UK to think about leading such a mission, which could be at the Moon by 2010.

Inside the Moon

The consortium proposed two lunar options.

There have been 12 astronauts on the Moon and more than 40 unmanned probes and yet we know surprisingly little about our nearest neighbour
Dr Andrew Coates, Mullard Space Science Lab
The first, named Moonlite, would despatch four suitcase-sized darts on to the lunar surface from orbit. The darts would be sent into craters across a wide area.

They would hit the ground at a high velocity (300m/s) and penetrate to a depth of 2m (6ft).

The darts could carry a small suite of instruments, such as seismometers to listen for "Moonquakes". Analysing these tremors would give scientists new insight into the make-up of the lunar interior.

According to Dr Andrew Coates, of the Mullard Space Science Lab and who has contributed to the concept study, the impactors would represent the first time there had been a detailed study of the Moon's sub-surface.

Moonraker (SSTL)
Moonraker would attempt to land on the lunar surface
"There have been 12 astronauts on the Moon and more than 40 unmanned probes and yet we know surprisingly little about our nearest neighbour," he said.

"Previous missions have focussed on the side of the Moon that faces the Earth. Our plan with Moonlite is for the first time is to explore the mysterious far side of the Moon as well."

As well as Moonlite, the consortium proposed another mission called Moonraker. This is designed to land on the lunar surface.

Its scientific goal would be to study the lunar surface, perhaps at the poles or in the giant impact crater that resides on the far side of the Moon. It might also provide useful information for space agencies searching for suitable sites for eventual human habitation.

Economic gain

Britain's involvement in space has been as a partner in co-operation with Nasa and the European Space Agency (Esa); and that is unlikely to change. But Sir Martin feels the time is now right for the UK to try to push its ideas to the fore; it should try to lead these types of missions.

"For the first time, it's now affordable," he told BBC News. "Current small missions to the Moon cost about 500 million euros. With advances in small satellites, we could probably cut that cost."

The missions would give UK scientists more opportunities to study the Moon; but, Sir Martin believes, they also present British industry with an incredible opportunity.

The Americans intend to set up a lunar colony; and the European, Indian and Chinese space agencies all have designs on the Moon.

Sir Martin thinks a UK-led "Moonshot" could provide the focus for British space companies to develop support technologies for what is rapidly turning into a 21st-Century space race.

"In the UK, we have tremendous expertise in this area. A UK Moon programme would enable us to get a foothold in what could turn out to be an economically important area for a relatively low cost," he argued.

Sir Martin thinks such a programme should be funded by industry and government.

He says that with sufficient support, a British conceived probe could be at the Moon by the decade's end.

UK's mission would be to find a habitable landing site

US plans permanent base on Moon
05 Dec 06 |  Americas
Minister in Moon talks with Nasa
30 Nov 06 |  UK Politics
UK seeks role in Moon missions
11 Aug 06 |  Science/Nature
Probe crashes into Moon's surface
03 Sep 06 |  Science/Nature

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