Infrastructure will be a critical component of any permanent human settlement on the moon. NASA’s Artemis missions focus directly on creating the objects and processes needed to support the lunar base. ESA is involved in a project to develop a satellite of the Earth, exploring its surface, for example, exploring caves in the underground lunar world.
The European Space Agency (ESA) recently launched the third round of a series of exploration of lunar caves. The current phase of testing, the concurrent design facility (CDF) study, builds on work done in two previous rounds of SysNova research. The SysNova Initiative is a technology assessment framework using “technology challenges” and competition to explore a relatively large number of alternative solutions. It promotes collaborative research among academic and industrial institutions in ESA member states while exploring new topics.
Of the five original concepts in early Sysnova exploration, ESA identified three “mission scenarios” – one for finding entrances to lunar caverns, one for scrutinizing the entrance to them, and one for exploring lava tubes with autonomous rovers. ESA then decided to continue evaluating two mission concepts that focus solely on the exploration of the cave entrance, but combine aspects of all three original mission concepts.
Understanding even the entrances to lunar caverns can prove invaluable in understanding the resources that will be available in the lunar underworld. It is also a key to understanding the radiation protection provided by the lunar regolith. This defense, depending on its effectiveness, could be a game changer in where any potential permanent lunar base would be located.
The first chosen mission plan is under the direction of the University of Würzburg. They developed a spherical probe that can be lowered into a cave entrance using a crane attached to an all-terrain vehicle. The probe itself is enclosed in a transparent plastic case and will contain a three-dimensional lidar, optical chamber and dosimeter that will allow the probe to read radiation levels at the entrance to the cave.
Wireless power and communications are the main focus of the second mission plan developed by the University of Oviedo. In his scenario, a “charging head” is attached to the end of a rover-based crane, which is then used to power and directly communicate with autonomous vehicles that do not have their own internal power source. Power to the lunar rover and the charging head will come directly from the connected solar panels.
The flight duration for these experiments will be scheduled for one lunar day, or approximately 14 Earth days.
Both of these proposed missions are still conceptual at this stage, and neither has received full funding. However, it is clear that ESA’s phased process is beneficial even before any mission is launched. The point is that the concepts that have arisen as a result are new and potentially doable with sufficient resources. Missions that have come this far in the process have a good chance of eventually becoming a reality and contributing to the work of establishing a permanent colony on the moon.