Page last updated at 14:53 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

Final hurdle for UK's Moon shot

By Pallab Ghosh
Science Correspondent, BBC News


An animation of the penetrator missile hitting the lunar surface

The UK's space funding body is to assess a proposal to send a British spacecraft to the Moon.

If the MoonLite project passes the "Phase A" study, a commitment would be made to launch the spacecraft in 2014.

The UK's MoonLite proposal has received enthusiastic backing from Nasa, describing the plan as "inspirational".

The study is MoonLite's final hurdle - it will investigate whether the mission is technically feasible and whether it will achieve its scientific objectives.

Experts say that a UK-led mission to the Moon would be a very significant national achievement and could not be undertaken lightly.

A team led by the University College London's Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory (MSSL) in Surrey first proposed MoonLite two years ago.

The concept is to send a small spacecraft into lunar orbit and fire four missiles toward various points into the Moon's surface to literally scratch below the surface.

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

The Phase A study is to overseen by the Penetrator Consortium, an affiliation of industry and academia which will be led by MSSL.

Each missile, or "penetrator" as they have been called, would be packed full of scientific instruments to study aspects of lunar geology - such as whether there are moonquakes.

As well as producing novel science, the penetrators would also explore new ways of sending signals back from the Moon.

Each penetrator would then send scientific data back to its mothership in orbit. If this is successful, the system could become the basis of a lunar communications network.

The penetrators performed well in tests at an Ministry of Defence test site earlier this year. The researchers fired them packed with instruments.


Test showing how penetrator missiles will work

The MoonLite Phase A study would examine three aspects to the total mission concept: it would look into the technology of the penetrators themselves and their scientific instruments.

It would also look at the design of the spacecraft to ensure that it can carry these four penetrators and it will look in detail at their descent rockets.

Each penetrator requires a retro-rocket kill its orbital velocity after it is detached from the orbiting spacecraft, so that it falls to the lunar surface and orientates itself vertically.

In addition to assessing whether the concept is technically sound, the study will look at whether the scientific benefits can be delivered at a reasonable cost.

Depending on the conclusions, a decision would subsequently be taken to fund the mission, meaning it could fly in the 2014 time frame.

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