What technologies are needed to ensure a safe, accurate Moon landing and in-situ lunar research? Airbus Defence and Space is currently investigating this question in Lunar Lander studies for the European Space Agency, ESA.
Currently the baseline for the mission is a dual-stage spacecraft using a transfer module concept. Following separation of the spacecraft from the launcher, the two-stage spacecraft (comprising the Transfer Module and the Lunar Lander Module) will enter a transfer orbit before swinging into orbit around the Moon just two kilometres above its surface. At this point, the Lander Module will detach itself from the Transfer Module and land near the Moon’s south pole. After that the scientific exploration will start.
There are a number of technological challenges that have to be mastered in order for such a lunar landing manoeuvre to work. So far, the Moon has been orbited, but only American astronauts have actually set foot on it. The technologies required for a robotic autonomous landing operation, as envisaged in the studies, are at present only partially available or still need to be developed.
Future lunar exploration in Europe is concentrating on the development of key technologies and capabilities. Therefore, following three concurrent Phase A studies, at the end of 2010 ESA kicked-off a study to investigate a Lunar Lander mission focusing on soft precision landing by means of landing legs and also providing a hazard avoidance capability. The primary objective of this first European Lunar Lander mission is to demonstrate the European ability to deliver a payload safely and accurately to the Moon’s surface. Once successfully landed, the mission will also offer the opportunity to conduct important scientific investigations with a view to future human exploration.
Airbus Defence and Space has been awarded the contract by ESA as Prime Contractor for execution of the lunar lander study. Currently the spacecraft is planned to be launched at the end of 2018 into a high elliptical orbit (HEO), aboard a Soyuz launcher from Kourou, French Guiana. The insertion into low lunar circular orbit and the descent and landing manoeuvres will be performed using the spacecraft’s own propulsion system, based on a clustered engine concept.