Page last updated at 18:33 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 19:33 UK

Britain's Moon shot takes shape

By Helen Briggs
Science reporter, BBC News

Prof Sir Martin Sweeting (BBC/Helen Briggs)
Sir Martin: An ambassador for UK space

Professor Sir Martin Sweeting is a man on a mission. He wants to build a probe that will, quite literally, take a shot at the Moon.

His vision, shared with a host of other UK scientists and engineers, is to fire "darts" packed with scientific instruments into the lunar surface.

The mission would search for water that might one day sustain astronauts visiting the orbiting outpost.

It would also test the concept of setting up a lunar-wide internet link.

The idea might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but it is a serious one.

So much so that the first steps to persuade funding agencies and industry to back Moonlite (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecoms Experiment) are well underway.

Recently, prototype "darts" were tested in South Wales at a military range.

"It's a rather innovative project to put up a satellite to orbit the Moon, and then to send some high-speed penetrators - or darts - down to go into the surface," explains Sir Martin.

"They may bury themselves up to three or four metres into the regolith (lunar earth) so we're going to have to trail out a little antenna.

"They're going to be able to communicate at very low power, so we need an orbiting relay to capture that data and then send it back to Earth."

Miniature scale

Sir Martin was knighted in 2002 for his services to microsatellite engineering. He set up Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) 22 years ago on a start-up fund of 100. Then a PhD student, he began building miniature spacecraft largely as a hobby.

Moonlite mission (Image: Surrey Space Centre/SSTL)
Four projectiles will be fired at the lunar surface

From such humble beginnings, the Surrey Space Centre, and its commercial spin-off, SSTL, have built up a world-class reputation for building and developing miniature satellites.

SSTL has more than 200 staff working at a bigger site just down the road, but the clean room and manufacturing facilities are still based in the heart of the University of Surrey campus.

Inside, a number of space projects are in progress. In a clean room on the ground floor, two Earth-monitoring satellites the size of domestic fridges wait to be shipped to the launch pad.

In a laboratory off the main corridor, a postgraduate student works on a spacecraft small enough to nestle in the palm of his hand.

Lunar networks

Sir Martin has long been an ambassador for the UK space industry. He is now applying his considerable energy and enthusiasm to making Moonlite a reality.

If successful, the UK would provide the technology to support as many as a dozen lunar spacecraft set to visit that most familiar of satellites in the next decade or so.

It would also lay the groundwork for future communication systems needed by astronauts.

"What we want to do in preparation for human habitation on the Moon - in the next 20 or 30 years - is to create a sort of internet around the Moon," says Sir Martin.

Graphic of penetrator target sites (BBC)
The darts will be spaced around the Moon

"So that we can provide the communication services back to Earth and also provide navigation so that when they (astronauts) are on the lunar surface they can know precisely where they are going to be."

The penetrators for Moonlite will be packed with scientific devices, such as thermometers, micro-seismometers, geochemical sensors and an X-ray spectrometer.

They will be built by research defence firm Qinetiq, and equipped with a scientific payload put together by the University College London Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The scientists that gathered to watch the test firing at Qinetiq's Pendine test facility in South Wales say it proved in principle that the technology will work.

Dr Yang Gao of the University of Surrey was among them: "It's shooting something as fast as a bullet.

"The results of the trial are extremely impressive. We got a lot of useful feedback," she says.

Penetrator trial (UCL Mullard Space Science)
Scientists were delighted by the test results

Dr Yang Gao says the penetrators will provide a platform for some "awesome science experiments" such as heat flow measurement, seismology measurement and also searching for water.

"There is a belief that there is some icy water buried beneath the surface which will provide future resources to astronauts to the Moon," she explains.

Funding question

The mission is planned for about 2013. With echoes of the ill-fated Beagle mission, a consortium of UK scientists is trying to persuade funding agencies and industry to back their bid.

"With the orbiter, the main question there is finance," says Sir Martin. "So we're in the process of seeing how we are going to be able to fund the mission.

"We want to do it on a very small budget, but it's still going to take some money, and so we're talking with the STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and looking into commercial opportunities to see how we can raise the money to fund that."

The project needs to attract an estimated 100m. According to the STFC, which runs the UK's main scientific infrastructure, the next step is an international peer review of the mission in July.

Should this be successful, the plan is to start a nine-month feasibility study, subject to the final decision of the STFC Executive.

Dr Craig Underwood, a reader in spacecraft engineering at the Surrey Space Centre, says work is going on meanwhile on both the science and technology sides of the mission.

"What's exciting to me about that is it is really the first time we've had a mission where we bring the two branches of UK space expertise together," he says.

"The excellent space scientists at places like Mullard Space Science Laboratory and so on, to the space engineers here at Surrey who know how to build and design spacecraft.

"Bringing that into one package, I think, is extremely valuable."

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