ESA is Engaged on a Mission to Discover Caves on the Moon

ESA is Working on a Mission to Explore Caves on the Moon

Infrastructure will be one of the largest components of any permanent human settlement on the moon. NASA’s Artemis missions focus directly on building the facilities and processes needed to support a lunar base. ESA contributes both material and knowledge. Finally, they took another step on their way to explore some lava tubes and caves in the subterranean lunar world.

ESA recently launched the third round in a series of studies focusing on the exploration of moon caves. The current round, known as the Concurrent Design Facility (CDF) study, builds on the work done in two previous rounds of the Sysnova studies. Originally, they comprised five studies ranging from lowering a probe into a cave to communicating with and powering the probes that cause this descent. As part of the CAVES and PANGEA programs, ideas were generated from the public.

UT Vide on Lava Tubes with a special focus on the moon.

From the five original concepts of the first Sysnova studies, ESA has worked out two three “mission scenarios” – one to find cave entrances, one to thoroughly examine a cave entrance, and one to explore a lava tube with autonomous rovers. ESA then decided to further evaluate two mission concepts that focus solely on exploring a cave entrance but combine aspects of all three original mission concepts.

Understanding even the entrance to moon caves can be invaluable in understanding the resources that might be available in the subterranean world of the moon. It is also important to understand the radiation protection that the regolith of the moon provides. This protection, depending on its effectiveness, can prove to be a game changer that would have a potential permanent lunar base.

Images of open lava tubes on the moon. Photo credit: NASA / LRO

The first mission plan selected is directed by the University of Würzburg. They developed a spherical probe that can be lowered into the mouth of a cave using a crane attached to a rover. The probe itself is surrounded by a transparent plastic shell and contains 3D lidar, an optical camera and a dosimeter with which the probe can read the radiation values ​​at the cave entrance.

Wireless power and communications are at the heart of the second mission plan developed by the University of Oviedo. In his scenario, a “charging head” is attached to the end of a rover-based crane, which is then used to provide power and direct communication with autonomous rovers that do not have their own internal power source. The power for the rover and the charging head comes directly from solar panels connected to the rover.

Image of the spherical camera system developed by the University of Würzburg.  Photo credit: University of WürzburgImage of the spherical camera system developed by the University of Würzburg.
Photo credit: University of Würzburg

The mission duration for these experiments would be planned for a lunar day or approximately 14 earth days. ESA plans to link the mission results of these two projects directly to two of their concerted lunar exploration efforts, known as the European Large Logistics Lander (EL3), which will help build the infrastructure necessary for a permanent presence as well as the moonlight initiative that focus on wireless Communication and navigation focused on lunar exploration vehicles.

Graphic depicting the concept of the University of Oviedo wireless power and control system.Graphic depicting the concept of the University of Oviedo wireless power and control system.
Photo credit: University of Oviedo

Both mission concepts are still conceptual at this point and neither has received full funding for anything that comes close to planning a full-fledged mission. It is clear, however, that the ESA’s step-by-step process offers added value even before the start of a mission – the resulting concepts are already novel and possibly feasible with sufficient willpower and funding. Indeed, missions that have made it this far have a good chance of becoming a reality at some point and contributing to our efforts to permanently colonize the moon.

Learn more:
ESA – ESA is planning a mission to explore the moon caves – ESA outlines mission to explore moon caves – This tiny, round probe could explore caves on the moon
UT – Why lava tubes should be our top exploration priority in other worlds

Mission statement:
Example of a hopping rover that could potentially be used in ESA cave exploration projects.
Photo credit: University of Manchester

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