Prospecting on the Moon: Russia, Europe to Hunt for Lunar Ice
The moon's huge South Pole-Aitken impact basin, presented here in false color based on data from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument on board NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia are working together to investigate the moon's resources — specifically, water ice and other volatiles at the lunar poles.

ESA is developing a drilling and sample-analysis payload called the ePackage for Resource Observation and in-Situ Prospecting for Exploration, Commercial Exploitation and Transportation (PROSPECT), which will fly to the moon aboard Russia's Luna 27 mission in the 2022-2023 time frame.

PROSPECT aims to assess potential resources on the moon and help prepare technologies that may be used to extract these resources in the future, ESA officials have said. The project will enter its detailed design phase, known as Phase C, at the start of 2019. [Photos: The Search for Water on the Moon]

On Aug. 10, ESA released an "announcement of opportunity" for membership in the PROSPECT science team. The opportunity is available to researchers working in ESA member states..

The Luna 27 mission is being orchestrated by Russia's federal space agency, Roscosmos. Luna 27 features aa lander that's expected to touch down at then South Pole-Aitken basin, an unexplored area on the far side of the moon.

PROSPECT's drill, known as ProSEED, will nallow the payload to snag subsurface samples, which are expected to contain water ice and other chemicals that can become trapped in the frigid South Pole-Aitken basin. Subsurface temperatures there typically reach minus 240 degrees Fahrenheit ( minus 150 degrees Celsius) and can get lower than minus 330 degrees F (minus 200 degrees C) in some areas.

These samples will then be passed to an onboard chemical laboratory dubbed ProSPA and heated to temperatures of up to 1,830 degrees F (1,000 degrees C) to extract cold-trapped volatiles. This will test processes that could be applied for resource extraction in the future, ESA officials hav said. (A volatile is a substance that changes readily from solid or liquid to a vapor.)

Cold-trapped volatiles at the lunar poles are potential resources for human exploration and provide a record of volatiles in the inner solar system. However, scientists don't understand much about rthe origins, distribution, abundance or extractability of these materials, or the processes that put volatiles in place within the Earth-moon system.

Diagram of Russia's Luna 27 spacecraft, which is scheduled to land on the moon's far side in 2022 or 2023, and some of its European payloads.
Diagram of Russia's Luna 27 spacecraft, which is scheduled to land on the moon's far side in 2022 or 2023, and some of its European payloads.
Credit: ESA

PROSPECT is part of a global effort to coordinate prospecting activities at the lunar poles, where extreme-cold conditions can trap water ice. Space exploration planners see these resources as potentially enabling sustainable space exploration..

Luna 27 is part of a grander roster of moon orbiters, landers, rovers and return-sample spacecraft planned by Roscosmos.

The Russian space agency reportedly aims to launch an earlier mission, Luna 25, very soon, perhaps next year. ESA's contribution to Luna 25 includes PILOT-D, a demonstrator "terrain-relative navigation" system. This will act as a precursor to PILOT, which is the navigation and hazard detection and avoidance system included on Luna 27. 

Also in the works are Luna 26 in 2022, Luna 27 in 2022-2023, Luna 28 in 2024 and Lunas 29-31 in 2026.

Leonard David is author of "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," published by National Geographic. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel series "Mars." A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. This version of the story published on Space.com.