A new space laboratory could help determine whether manned research bases could be built on the moon or Mars.
Researchers from the Open University have designed a device for future landing missions that can ascertain if the ground and atmosphere at a particular site contains enough water and other chemicals needed to produce fuel in order to support a base.
The miniature chemical laboratory, known as Lunar Volatile Resources Analysis Package (L-VRAP), has been designed for a possible European Space Agency (ESA) mission to the moon’s south pole but could also be used for a similar mission to Mars.
‘To date, only a tiny fraction of the moon’s surface has been physically sampled and analysed, and all of that activity took place 40 years ago,’ said Dr Simon Sheridan, Open University research fellow and one of the device’s designers.
‘Our L-VRAP device is a state-of-the-art sampling and analysis package that will determine, in situ, the abundance and the isotopic composition of volatiles present in the moon’s atmosphere, surface and subsurface.’
Volatiles are elements and compounds with low boiling points such as nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen and methane, which would be needed to establish a manned base.
Recent evidence suggests that the moon has large pools of frozen water in craters around its poles. By measuring the detailed isotopic composition of key elements, L-VRAP may be able to provide clues to the origin of any water detected on the moon.
The researchers are hoping the device will be selected for inclusion on ESA’s Lunar Lander mission to the moon’s south pole in 2018, which will be considered at the ESA ministerial meeting in November.