How Europe is joining with Russia to explore the moon

Budget cuts may have moved the Luna 27 Russian moon lander from 2020 to 2025, but whenever and if ever it launches, it will likely carry a European-built drill that will bore two meters into the lunar surface at the moon’s South Pole. The drilling system will extract packed ice thought to exist in some of the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar South Pole. The drill is called, appropriately, Prospect: Platform for Resource Observation and in-Situ Prospecting in support of Exploration, Commercial exploitation & Transportation. The drill portion of Prospect was built Finmeccanica in Nerviano, Italy and has already been tested in simulated lunar soil.

The drill, having extracted the ice and soil sample, will deliver it to an onboard lab being developed by the Open University in the UK. The European Space Agency is also working on Pilot – Precise Intelligent Landing using On-board Technology, which will use a LIDAR system to facilitate a precision landing, detecting and avoiding hazards.

A council of ministers for the European Space Agency will rule of final approval for inclusion of the drill, the lab, and the Pilot system on the Luna 27 in December 2016.

The importance of lunar ice

Scientists have been keenly interested in ice located in the shadowed craters at the lunar poles since the 1990s. The ice would be a valuable resource for future human settlers on Earth’s nearest neighbor. The ice melted into water can be used for drinking and agriculture.

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Water can also be split into hydrogen and oxygen and used for fuel cells. Hydrogen and oxygen can also be chilled to liquid and used as rocket fuel.

The use of lunar water as rocket fuel as officials at various national space agencies such as NASA and the ESA and commercial space entrepreneurs alike excited. Fuel is the major part of the mass of any spacecraft being launched from Earth.  The American space agency is focused on its Journey to Mars program. A number of studies, conducted by Next-Gen Space and MIT, have concluded that using the moon as a refueling depot would substantially reduce the cost and complexity of expeditions to Mars. A prospecting mission to the lunar South Pole such as Lunar 27 would be the first step to making that happen.  

Meanwhile, NASA is still avoiding all thought of returning to the moon. A number of commercial companies, such as Moon Express, are very keen on mining the moon for profit.