NASA's push to return humans to the moon will get a huge international helping hand. A mission named Heracles will use a robotic rover to survey the lunar terrain in preparation for the eventual arrival of astronauts and to return samples it scooped up to Earth.
The European-Canadian-Japanese mission, scheduled for the mid- to late 2020s, calls for the rover to arrive on the moon inside a small lander, under the careful watch of astronauts in NASA's planned Gateway space station. Gateway will orbit the moon and allow astronauts and robots easier access to the lunar surface.
The rover, ESA said in a statement, will examine the terrain and pick up several samples, which it will return to its lander. Then the spacecraft's ascent module will head to Gateway bearing the precious lunar rocks and regolith (soil).
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The ultimate goal of Heracles is to return lunar samples to Earth during Orion's fourth or fifth mission. Those Orion missions would be part of the so-called Artemis program, NASA's initiative under President Donald Trump's administration to land humans on the moon by 2024. But ESA doesn't appear to be working under the same timeline, with their would-be preparatory mission coming as or after NASA attempts to land astronauts.
But the robots won't be done then. Once the ascent module arrives back at Gateway, Canadarm3 — a robotic arm planned by the Canadian Space Agency — will capture the spacecraft. The Canadarm3 will then berth the spacecraft to the outpost's airlock so that the moon samples can be brought inside NASA's Orion spacecraft, which the agency plans to test for the first time in 2020.
"Heracles will demonstrate these technologies and prove their value for humans," the European Space Agency said in a statement. "Later missions will include a pressurized rover driven by astronauts and an ascent module for the crew to return home."
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