Researchers at The Open University have presented plans for an extraplanetary laboratory that will determine whether it will be possible to establish a base on the Moon, or potentially Mars.
The Open University's Planetary and Space Sciences researchers have developed a conceptual Lunar Volatile Resources Analysis Package (L-VRAP) that, if selected for funding, will ascertain whether there are sufficient quantities of water and fuel at the Moon’s South Pole to support a future manned research base. Researchers also suggest that L-VRAP could be utilised in a similar mission to Mars.
L-VRAP is a miniature chemical laboratory capable of identifying and quantifying volatiles - elements and compounds with low boiling points such as nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen and methane - in the Moon’s crust and atmosphere.
The device could be fitted to a Lunar or Martian lander and would carry out scientific investigations that are essential to the success of long-term space exploration and could pave the way for an extended human presence away from the Earth.
Dr Simon Sheridan, Research Fellow at The Open University and one of the authors of the paper, said: “To date, only a tiny fraction of the Moon's surface has been physically sampled and analysed and all of that activity took place 40 years ago. Our L-VRAP device is a state of the art sampling and analysis package that will determine in situ, the abundance and the isotopic composition of volatiles present in the Moon’s atmosphere, surface and sub-surface.”
Previously thought to be a dry, barren landscape, recent evidence suggests that the Moon has large pools of frozen water in craters around its poles. By measuring the detailed isotopic composition of key elements, L-VRAP may be able to provide clues to the origin of any water detected on the Moon.
The Lunar Lander mission will be considered at the ESA Ministerial meeting in November 2012. If selected, L-VRAP could launch as early as 2019. Meanwhile, The Open University will be developing L-VRAP in readiness for other space mission opportunities.
The paper describing the L-VRAP has been published in Planetary and Space Science. A copy of “L-VRAP - A Lunar Volatile Resources Analysis Package for Lunar Exploration” is available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pss.2012.08.014