Astrium to prepare Moon mission plan

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EADS's Astrium division has been charged with designing a robotic Moon lander and rover for a 2018 European Space Agency mission designed to test new technology and scout out the lunar South Pole as a prime site for future manned landings.

The €6.5 million Phase B1 contract will fund Astrium to devise, by the end of 2011, a fully defined mission concept and detailed design of the landing vehicle and Moon rover. Key issues are essential technologies for an automatic, soft and precise landing, as well as testing of engine hardware components and navigation sensors using equipment capable of recreating a realistic lunar environment.

Astrium is also to confirm the Lunar lander's overall cost and schedule, to advise the ESA council's ultimate decision on mission financing.

ESA's proposed mission would be the first to the lunar South Pole. The region is mountainous and heavily cratered, but considered to be a prime choice for a manned mission owing to its almost-continuous sunlight for solar power and potential access to vital resources such as water-ice.

According to Dr. Michael Menking, Astrium's senior vice-president orbital systems and space exploration, the most recent topographic data covering the Moon's south pole will be analysed in detail to find promising landing sites: "The target area is poorly understood and only now are we are beginning to receive the information needed to consider landing and operating a mission there."

Astrium will design the robotic lander down to the level of its various subsystems, such as propulsion and navigation. A preliminary system requirements review in 2012 will then provide the basis for the final design of the mission and lander.

Menking adds that the Moon lander concept is based on technologies developed for the Astrium-build Automated Transfer Vehicle, the robotic cargo craft being used to supply the International Space Station. "This unique expertise will enable us to develop the key technologies - it would not be possible to envisage landing a robotic vehicle on the Moon without them," he says.

ESA's Moon lander will need to fly a precise course from lunar orbit towards the surface and, on the way down, image the surface and recognise dangerous features by itself in order to land safely in a region that is far more rugged than the Apollo mission's relatively smooth equatorial landing sites.

Once on the ground, the lander will study the properties and possible health effects of radiation and lunar dust on future astronauts and deploy a rover to examine the soil for signs of resources that could be used by explorers.