Space agency picks Italian company to design lunar drill

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a contract with Italian aerospace engineer Leonardo-Finmeccanica to build a robot drill and a set of scientific instruments that will be delivered to the Moon in 2021.

The deal is part of a project being jointly undertaken by the ESA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos. Its aim of the project is to look 2m below the surface of the Moon for water or raw materials that could be used in future construction projects.

The project, called Prospect, is part of a Russia’s Luna-Resurs, on which the ESA is collaborating. This will be a landing on the Moon’s South Pole area, which scientists believe may contain ice, and which has long been considered the likeliest location of a permanent base.

Rome-based Leonardo-Finmeccanica is a partly state-owned manufacturer of aeroplanes, helicopters, electronic systems and space technology. Its drill and the accompanying analytic equipment are due to be delivered to the Moon by a Russian mission in 2021.

The deal was signed at the Farnborough Air Show on 12 July. The work will be undertaken with the help of the UK’s Open University. The initial work will be carried out for €8m, reports the BBC, but the full implementation of Prospect will require a further €65m, funding that will be voted on by European politicians in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the end of the year.

David Parker, the ESA’s director for human spaceflight and robotic exploration, told the BBC: "Luna-Resurs is fully planned in the Russian space programme, and they are pushing us to finalise all the agreements to go forward with the project.

"We have got the money to start work but we will need further support come the ministerial. We’re at now what we call ‘Phase B plus’, and the approval we will seek at the end of the year should enable us to finish the job."

That money will however also include the funds for the autonomous navigation system, called Pilot, which will be used to land the probe.

Prospect stands for Package for Resource Observation, in-Situ analysis and Prospecting for Exploration Commercial exploitation and Transportation.

Luna-Resurs is one of a number of programmes to develop the Moon’s scientific and commercial potential. Japan is developing robot construction machinery and the US and China have programmes that will be carried out throughout the 2020s.

Image: The Moon’s South Pole, where the presence of ice is suspected (Nasa)

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