Germany To Push 2019 Moon Lander in Naples Next Month

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BREMEN, Germany — A German-led European lunar lander and rover mission could be designed, built, launched and operated for six months on the lunar surface for 500 million euros ($650 million), the mission’s presumptive prime contractor, Astrium GmbH, said Oct. 23.

Under a two-year contract from the European Space Agency (ESA) that ends in mid-November, an Astrium-led six-nation team has concluded Europe could place an 808-kilogram lander/rover package on the surface of the Moon in 2019.

Moonlander would arrive at the lunar south pole and would demonstrate technologies deemed useful for future exploration missions as well as a suite of experiments, yet to be defined, at a region of the Moon that remains poorly understood 40 years after the last of the U.S. Apollo astronauts quit the Moon’s surface.

One of Moonlander’s objectives is to learn about the Moon’s geologic history, especially as it might shed light on Earth’s history.

“We don’t know what the inside of the Moon looks like,” said Ralf Jaumann, head of planetary geology at the Institute of Planetary Research, owned by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is Germany’s space agency. “Apollo happened too early for good seismic research, and nothing on the back side of the Moon was done.”

The idea of sending a lander/rover to the lunar south pole has been promoted by the German government for several years, originally as a German-only project. Since late 2010, it has been taken up by the 20-nation ESA, which is at pains to establish an exploration program it can call its own.

ESA’s only current exploration effort, the two-launch ExoMars mission, continues to struggle for final approval by ESA governments.

In a series of presentations here Oct. 23, Astrium and DLR officials said the strong backing of the German government should be enough to ensure the program’s support at least until its preliminary design review in 2015.

A decision on whether to spend another 100 million euros for two more years of work to carry the project to preliminary design review will be made by ESA government ministers during a meeting scheduled Nov. 20-21 in Naples, Italy.

ESA’s original contract with the Astrium-led team was valued at about 13 million euros. What began as a project 98 percent backed by Germany and 2 percent by Portugal — not an auspicious beginning for an ESA mission — has since broadened to a six-nation effort in which Germany has a 71 percent financial stake.

Spain has since taken an 11 percent stake in the preliminary work, although it remains unclear whether the cash-strapped Spanish government will be able to maintain that participation in the full program. Canada, which is an associate member of ESA, took a 9 percent investment stake. Belgium subscribed to 6 percent; Portugal, 2 percent; and the Czech Republic, 1 percent.

When ESA governments meet in Naples in November to determine the agency’s multiyear budget and program package, Moonlander will be on the agenda. German officials agree that they will need to find enough support to bring Germany’s contribution level down to well under 60 percent for the project to proceed.

ESA is asking for a second two-year preparatory program, this one budgeted at around 100 million euros, to bring Moonlander to its preliminary design review in 2015. Full-scale development, if approved, would then follow, with a launch in 2018.

Program officials said the estimated 500-million-euro budget includes some 75 million euros in the cost of launching Moonlander aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center.

The Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage would place Moonlander — which including fuel would weigh some 2,300 kilograms — into a highly elliptical Earth orbit with an apogee of 330,000 kilometers and a perigee of 280 kilometers. Including adaptors, the Soyuz would be lifting about 2,400 kilograms.

After a 41-day voyage, the 3.3-meter-tall Moonlander would be inserted into a 100-kilometer circular lunar orbit. It would spend up to 88 days in orbit, using an on-board camera to scout favorable landing sites and to wait for a favorable landing window during the south pole’s summer season.

The lander and rover would operate on solar power requiring maximum daylight exposure. Peter Kyr, head of robotic exploration and space robotics at Astrium, said the rover’s batteries would permit about two days of autonomy before needing a recharge.

Kyr said the lander/rover would have about 90 seconds during its descent to select a landing spot based on weather and terrain conditions, and would be able to maneuver 200 meters within that 90-second period.

The most immediate challenge for the program is not technological, but financial. Even Germany, which appears more willing than ESA’s other big backers to increase its space spending, cannot carry Moonlander on its own.

Kyr said Moonlander’s success at the Naples meeting in November likely will depend on political compromises made between Germany and its ESA partners, notably France and Italy, which as of now are not part of the project.

In a series of presentations here Oct. 23, Astrium and DLR officials said the strong backing of the German government should be enough to ensure the program’s support at least until its preliminary design review in 2015.

A decision on whether to spend another 100 million euros for two more years of work to carry the project to preliminary design review will be made by ESA government ministers during a meeting scheduled Nov. 20-21 in Naples, Italy.

ESA’s original contract with the Astrium-led team was valued at about 13 million euros. What began as a project 98 percent backed by Germany and 2 percent by Portugal — not an auspicious beginning for an ESA mission — has since broadened to a six-nation effort in which Germany has a 71 percent financial stake.

Spain has since taken an 11 percent stake in the preliminary work, although it remains unclear whether the cash-strapped Spanish government will be able to maintain that participation in the full program. Canada, which is an associate member of ESA, took a 9 percent investment stake. Belgium subscribed to 6 percent; Portugal, 2 percent and the Czech Republic, 1 percent.

When ESA governments meet in Naples in November to determine the agency’s multiyear budget and program package, Moonlander will be on the agenda. German officials agree that they will need to find enough support to bring Germany’s contribution level down to well under 60 percent for the project to proceed.

ESA is asking for a second two-year preparatory program, this one budgeted at around 100 million euros, to bring Moonlander to its preliminary design review in 2015. Full-scale development, if approved, would then follow, with a launch in 2018.

Program officials said the estimated 500-million-euro budget includes some 75 million euros in the cost of launching Moonlander aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center.

The Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage would place Moonlander — which including fuel would weigh some 2,300 kilograms — into a highly elliptical Earth orbit with an apogee of 330,000 kilometers and a perigee of 280 kilometers. Including adaptors, the Soyuz would be lifting about 2,400 kilograms.

After a 41-day voyage, the 3.3-meter-tall Moonlander would be inserted into a 100-kilometer circular lunar orbit. It would spend up to 88 days in orbit, using an on-board camera to scout favorable landing sites and to wait for a favorable landing window during the south pole’s summer season.

The lander and rover would operate on solar power requiring maximum daylight exposure. Peter Kyr, head of robotic exploration and space robotics at Astrium, said the rover’s batteries would permit about two days of autonomy before needing a recharge.

Kyr said the lander/rover would have about 90 seconds during its descent to select a landing spot based on weather and terrain conditions, and would be able to maneuver 200 meters within that 90-second period.

The most immediate challenge for the program is not technological, but financial. Even Germany, which appears more willing than ESA’s other big backers to increase its space spending, cannot carry Moonlander on its own.

Kyr said Moonlander’s success at the Naples meeting in November likely will depend on political compromises made between Germany and its ESA partners, notably France and Italy, which as of now are not part of the project.