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NASA, UK boffins plan tunnelling Moon mole robot

Beagle 3 to seek Martian fossils in lunar caverns

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

A joint working group set up by the British government and US space agency NASA has recommended that the two countries cooperate on a "UK-led" unmanned moon mission.

Under the so-called "MoonLITE" (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecoms Experiment) plan, a satellite would be placed in orbit round the Moon. The spacecraft would fire three or four penetrator probes into the lunar crust, which would send back readings on the "interior structure of the Moon" to their droid mothership. The satellite would them beam the info back to Earth control.

"This joint report represents a milestone," said Prof Keith Mason of the UK Space Board.

"The [plans] provide an opportunity to harness the UK’s world-class expertise in small satellite, communication and robotic technologies focused on exploration of the Moon... the UK is fully exploiting and strategically maximising its technological and scientific strengths in space exploration."

No mention was made in the announcements of Blighty's failed £50m Mars lander, Beagle 2. However, it was confirmed that the MoonLITE plans will now be subjected to "an international scientific ‘peer-review’ and a more detailed technical study of MoonLITE leading to a definitive cost estimate before a decision to go ahead is taken".

After the Beagle 2 disaster, a European space agency investigation said the project should never have gone ahead as it had not complied with peer-review funding requirements.

Apart from the relatively small one-year MoonLITE programme, not to commence before 2012, NASA and the UK Space Board have some other collaborative plans. In particular they would like to use technology developed for the Beagle 2 programme - among other things - to survey the lunar antarctic.

In the detailed working group report (pdf, p18) the transatlantic space boffins outline ambitious plans.

A package at the South Pole could address the following science and exploration questions... Is the Moon conductive to human life? How do the environment, atmosphere, and ionosphere vary?... Sample acquisition is a key requirement for such a package... Samples could be extracted via a simple corer, via an ultrasonic drill, or even subsurface via a Mole.

Now that's more our kind of space programme. Orbital robot penetrator bombardment, possible discovery of places on the Moon "conductive to human life" (which has to mean habitable air-filled underground caverns, surely, perhaps host to a bizarre race of mushroom people) - and these to be found by tunnelling, rocket-launched robot mole cruisers.

And there's more:

Mars is currently the focus of attention with regard to the search for early signs of life outside Earth; the Moon may be the better place to search for the remains of both early Martian and early terrestrial life.

Sadly, they don't mean that our ancestors came from the Moon to colonise Earth and Mars, forming a now long-dead interplanetary Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon empire. Rather, the idea is that long-ago meteor impacts could have smashed bits off Earth or Mars to drift through space and land on the Moon, there to be preserved through the aeons rather than subsequently being broken down or mixed up in atmospheric events, vulcanism and whatnot.

Still, we say it's well worth a bit of cash for spacegoing robot mole probes, if that could find us a proto-Martian fossil or interplanetary dinosaur egg.

Unexpectedly wacky stuff from NASA and UK.gov, all in all. ®

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