Getting humans to Mars is one thing, but figuring out what to do once you get there is a completely different challenge. Under the premise of NASA’s Moon to Mars directive, the US space agency is aiming to put boots on Mars as early as the 2030s by using the Moon as a stepping stone into the solar system. And the best of the UK’s scientists will aid this effort by developing techniques and technologies needed for this ambitious task.
NASA’s Moon to Mars programme will kick off in November this year with a series of crewed and uncrewed launches to the Moon.
NASA wants to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon by 2028, as well as building a small orbital outpost in lunar orbit.
Towards this goal, the first humans to walk on the Moon since 1972’s Apollo 17 are due to launch and land on the Moon’s south pole by 2024.
A team of researchers from The Open University and RAL Space in the UK are collaborating with NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) on this mission.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced today (July 6) the scientists are investigating the presence of water on the Moon – a key ingredient for long-term surface operations.
The ability to pull water from the lunar surface will save time and money as it is simply too impractical and expensive to haul water to the lunar surface.
Led by Dr Simeon Barber of The Open University, the team has developed a cutting-edge instrument that will detect water and other molecules in the Moon’s atmosphere.
The so-called Exospheric Mass Spectrometer (EMS) will be integrated into NASA’s PITMS instrument, which will be delivered to NASA today.
The goal is to learn more about the Moon’s “water cycle” – a poorly understood phenomenon scientists are keen to learn more about.
And the application of these technologies on the Moon could also greatly benefit future Mars explorers.
Dr Barber, a Senior Research Fellow at The Open University, said: “Finding useful materials in space, and using them as supplies for onward journeys, is a simple concept with huge potential benefits.
“Fifty years after humans walked on the Moon, we are limited to six astronauts orbiting 300km above Earth in the International Space Station.
“All their supplies have to be launched by rocket through Earth’s gravity field.
“If we can build new bases in lunar orbit or on the Moon’s surface, supplied by materials we find and harvest locally, we can escape from the clutches of Earth’s gravity and explore deeper into our solar system.”
The PITMS instrument will be delivered to the Moon by the American firm Astrobotic – just one of many companies contracted by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
The instrument will fly aboard the Peregrine-1 lunar lander, which is due to launch in 2022.
NASA has hired a number of companies to launch payloads to the Moon’s surface as part of the Artemis lunar programme.
Artemis will include a number of robotic and human missions that will set the stage for a trip to Mars.
Last year, NASA said: “Artemis missions will serve as a unique opportunity for the agency and its partners to test, refine and perfect many of the technologies and complex operations needed for human exploration of Mars as early as the 2030s.
“Starting next year, the agency is sending dozens of new science investigations and technology experiments on commercial robotic Moon deliveries about twice per year prior to a human return in 2024.”
According to Chris Castelli, director of programmes at the UK Space Agency, the UK plays a pivotal role in international space missions.
The country’s top minds and scientific institutions are contributing their wealth of knowledge relating to robotics, communications and satellites.
Dr Castelli said: “If we want to travel extensively in space we will need to make or find the things, like water, which we require to support life.
“So this collaboration between the Open University and NASA is crucial in helping us pave the way for the next stages of humankind’s journey into sustainable space exploration.”