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Space agencies plan robotic lunar exporation agreement

This year could see the signing by the world's major space agencies of a charter for the joint robotic exploration of the Moon, with landers reaching the lunar surface by the middle of the next decade.

The charter, a NASA initiative, will set out the goals for this robotic exploration programme to be called the International Lunar Network.

The ILN programme could include a 2013 testbed technology project for what would become lunar telecommunications and navigation spacecraft and robot landers, which would reach the Moon by 2017. Sent by different ILN partners, the landers could number up to four and their launch would be co-ordinated to ensure the maximum number of vehicles operating on the surface at the same time. Such an array of landers could conduct seismological research to understand Moonquakes and meteor impacts.

The European Space Agency already has a phase A study for an ILN candidate mission called MoonNext that would complete by March next year.

Detlef Koschny is ESA's science directorate's lunar science research co-ordinator and the study scientist for MoonNext. He says: "We would land at the south pole, close to Shackleton crater. This mission will be proposed to the November ministerial meeting," which will have to approve MoonNext for it to be the ESA contribution to ILN. Shackleton crater is a target landing site because it is a candidate location for a manned Moonbase.

The lander could have a mass of up to 800kg (1,760lb) and carry seismometers and cameras. It would be launched by a Starsem Soyuz 2-1b from the Kourou, French Guiana spaceport. ESA is also considering a rover that would be deployed from the lander.

Other steps in international lunar mission co-operation could see radio spectrum and technical standards agreements in the next 18 months, following which a phase two exploration agreement could be reached by 2013 that implements the agreed standards and extends them in 2015 for the planning required for manned missions. Further standards agreements are envisaged in 2019.

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