February 20, 2008 A new report has outlined the possibility of US support for the planned UK-led MoonLITE mission, a project that aims to use a solar-powered spacecraft to fire four suitcase-sized “penetrators” at the surface of the moon at speeds of 300m/s. The penetrators would be deployed to the far side of the Moon, and one of the poles, where they would sink to depths of up to two metres beneath the moon’s surface, and analyse “Moonquakes”, study heat flows, and determine the chemical and physical structure of the Moon’s interior.
British scientists designed the MoonLITE, or Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecoms Experiment, to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the Moon which have remained largely unexplored. The (literally) groundbreaking research will conclude whether there is water on the Moon, and whether the Moon was created as a result of a collision with the Earth. The penetrators would be the first probes designed to study the interior of the moon, and would carry an array of thermometers and seismometers to gather the data.
The technology used for MoonLITE could set the stage for similar missions to Jupiter's fourth largest moon Europa, which has long tantalized scientists with its possibility for liquid water. MoonLITE could also help the US in its plan to eventually establish Moon-based colonies – a follow-up mission called Moonraker would further investigate potential sites.
As part of a consortium led by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, QinetiQ would be responsible for supplying the impact resistant penetrator bodies for the mission. QinetiQ's expertise in penetrators was developed under programs for the UK Ministry of Defence. Paul Smith, Chief Operating Officer for QinetiQ's UK space business commented: "The penetrator engineering concepts come from long-standing research programmes on projectiles. Through the MoonLITE mission we could soon see this technology used in space."
If NASA and BNSC continue to work together on MoonLITE, the next step will be a nine-month study to deliver a definitive cost estimate for the mission. NASA is expected to make their decision this year. With their support, the MoonLITE mission could be launched as early as 2012.