Scientists plan Britain's first ever mission to the moon

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British scientists have put forward ambitious plans to go to the Moon by sending scientific instruments to study the lunar surface.

If the proposals are accepted by the Government and the European Space Agency (ESA) they could form the basis of the first UK-led mission to the Moon.

Details emerged yesterday as part of a wider review of ESA's strategy over the next couple of decades to explore the Moon, Mars and nearby asteroids with robots, possibly culminating in manned missions and a joint lunar base by 2020.

Nasa has already announced its intention to send men back to the Moon by 2020, and China, India and Japan have expressed an interest in collaborating on lunar exploration.

Britain's effort could materialise in the form of one of two missions called Moonlite and Moonraker. Moonlite involves firing penetrators at the lunar surface to bury instruments to analyse seismic activity. The second option, Moonraker, aims to mount geological-dating instruments on board a rover vehicle which would make the first lunar soft landing by Europe.

David Parker, of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said: "We have already completed a feasibility study of these two robotic missions to the surface of the Moon focused on exploiting the UK's leadership in small satellites and miniaturised science instruments.

"These are two ideas we've brought to the table. There is a one-in-10 chance of the missions going ahead."

Scientists are interested in the Moon because its geological features are as old or even older than the oldest rocks on Earth.

As such, the Moon represents an important "fossil" of the young Solar System from when the planets were forming.

"It's becoming quite clear that the Moon is almost unique in that it presents a record of what was going on in the early Solar System," said Dr John Zarnecki, of the Open University.

He said studying the lunar surface could explain how life began on Earth ­ whether for instance it was "seeded" by complex organic molecules from space. Another plan is to put a large radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, which is free from man-made radio interference produced by human electronics on Earth.

It could be built by rolling out layers of plastic sheets that would form the "dish" of the radio-telescope. "To do radio astronomy on the Moon may be a bit like laying a carpet in your house," Dr Zarnecki said.

Tim Radford, a freelance consultant who is advising ESA on public attitudes, said that many people do not want Europe and Britain to be left out of any future manned missions to the Moon.

"Is the Moon going to become the eighth continent or the 51st US state? Are we all going to do it, or are we going to leave it to Nasa?" Mr Radford said.

He added: "The great thing about exploration is that you really don't know what you're going to find."