International space agencies are working together to map out the possible architectures for the next phase of human and robotic exploration activities including to asteroids, the moons of Mars and, eventually Mars itself and beyond. See http://www.globalspaceexploration.org/wordpress/ for more information about these international plans.
With these plans in mind, several Isotope group members in Dec are off to the upcoming International Symposium on Moon 2020-2030 workshop at the European Space Agency, to discuss exploration plans and science motivation for future missions to the Moon, as preparation for exploration of the wider Solar System.
The upcoming workshop will explore ways in which humans and robots can share the journey and work in partnership to tackle the technological challenges ahead. The conference is very timely as there is a real sense between space agencies that the Moon is the best place to learn how to undertake long duration manned spaceflight away from low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station has been operating with a human presence since 2000. Working in cooperation we ultimately want to send humans out into the Solar System, with Mars being the long-term exploration goal to help address critical comparative planetary science questions about the history of our own planet and the evolution of the Solar System. However, we have a lot to learn before humans can visit Mars (see here for background of this challenge) and other planetary bodies.
The first steps in the lunar part of this exciting journey are starting now as the European Space Agency is planning to develop key robotic explorer technologies by partnering with the Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS. In the 2020-2025 timeframe it is hoped that ESA will contribute key component of the continuing Luna space programme and assist with telecommunications and automated landing technology. This will lead onto a science mission called Luna 27 to explore the volatile inventory and resource potential of the south polar regions of the Moon (in Manchester we are helping out with planning for a science experiment provided by ESA that will hopefully fly on this mission).
In the 2025 to 2030 timeframe a variety of space exploration plans include an idea to develop a space station above the farside of the Moon (in a stable orbit known as a Lagrange point). The advantage of having this sort of staging post only about three days travel time from the Earth, is that astronauts can develop the capability for living and working in a ‘deep space’ environment. This facility could have a range of future exploration uses, for example, it could be used as an orbital base to explore the Moon itself using rovers or human landers (see here for more details as described by three of the group’s PhD students). The base may also serve as an integration point for future spacecraft to travel to and from Mars, or as a staging post for asteroid retrieval activities to teach explorers how to investigate small planetary bodies.
This exploration concept is still in early stages of development, however, as new heavy lift rocket systems (such as NASA’s Space Launch System) come online and the ISS moves towards its anticipated retirement, new human spaceflight destinations are one step closer, providing us an opportunity to scientifically explore the Solar System in collaboration with each other and our robotic partners.
For more information about the upcoming International Symposium on Moon 2020-2030 http://spaceflight.esa.int/humanrobotics/
For more information about possible architectures involving human and robotic interaction to explore the Moon in preparation for missions to Mars see previous blog post https://earthandsolarsystem.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/houston-you-have-a-problem/ where group members Dayl and Fran discuss their summer internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. Also a report of their internship activity studying geological investigations of the Moon enabled by human-robotic exploration can be seen in this new article:
Francesca McDonald, Dayl Martin, Natalie Curran, and Abigail Calzada-Diaz (2015) Exploring the Moon on Earth. Astronomy and Geophysics 56 (6): 6.31-6.32 doi:10.1093/astrogeo/atv199 http://astrogeo.oxfordjournals.org/content/56/6/6.31.abstract