Europe and Russia Plan First Ever Joint Mission to the Moon

The Moon
A passenger aircraft, with the full "Harvest Moon" seen behind, makes its final approach to landing at Heathrow Airport in west London, September 19, 2013. Toby Melville/Reuters

Russia and Europe have rekindled plans for joint exploration of the moon in a cost-sharing agreement that could see Europe launch its first ever successful mission to the moon.

The idea, put forward by the European Space Agency (ESA) at a meeting to discuss the space agency's activities in Luxembourg on 2nd December, proposes that the ESA will co-operate with the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos, by contributing equipment to two planned Russian space missions over the next six years.

Whilst science ministers had not originally planned to collaborate with Russia, the ESA suggested at the meeting that the proposal is one of its only options in its efforts to ensure long-term access to the moon, and that the cooperation could have potential benefits for both partners.

The idea of a partnership with Roscosmos has been a potential solution to the obstacles facing Europe's lunar mission since 2012, when a proposal for an ESA moon lander failed to gather enough support.

The first of these missions, due to launch is 2019, is Roscosmos's Luna-Resource Lander, also known as Luna 27, which will land in the southern hemisphere of the moon where it will study the lunar soil and atmosphere. The second of the missions, due to be launched in 2020, is Roscocmos's Lunar Sample Return, which will bring samples back to Earth.

The preliminary phase of the mission will potentially cost in the hundreds of millions of euros, which will come from a pool of 800 million euros. However the lion share of this ESA budget, as agreed at the Luxembourg meeting, will go to other ESA projects, including the development of a new generation of low-cost rockets, continued ESA participation in the international space station and NASA's Orion spacecraft, which is hoped to eventually take astronauts into deep space.

Although there have been over 50 expeditions to the moon, no lander or astronaut has ever been to the lunar south pole, which is the site of the deepest known impact crater in our solar system, thought to be around 12km deep. According to Ian Crawford, a lunar scientist at Birkbeck, University of London it's believed that by digging out rocks from below the surface, it would be possible to reveal details of the moon's history.

"The idea that we've 'been there and done that' did last for a long time, but that's gone away now," Crawford told the Nature journal. "The moon still has a lot to tell us."

Whilst Europe doesn't particularly want to have to collaborate with Russia, Ian says, it is a "very welcome plan B".

"We're primed for a lunar mission, so it's absolutely timely," he says.

The proposed cooperation to launch a mission to the moon's south pole coincides with growing political tensions between Russia and the West, sparking fears that increasing strains will compromise its success.

At present, Roscosmos is also collaborating with the ExoMars mission which is led by the ESA, in which a Russian launch vehicle, carrier module and lander will deliver ESA's rover to Mars's surface in 2018. Russia is also involved with the ESA in the International Space Station. Both these missions, say ESA officials, are going forward smoothly, unaffected by geopolitical tensions.