The European Space Agency has selected two projects to explore lunar caves for further development. One of them involves a rope descent into a lava hole of a small spherical probe, and the second – launching a swarm of small robots inside a lava tube.
Lava caves and cavities have been repeatedly observed with orbital probes on the Moon and Mars and are of interest to planetary scientists for several reasons. They can provide valuable information about the structure of the surface layer, as well as contain reserves of frozen volatile compounds and become a possible haven for the first inhabited bases. However, so far not a single research apparatus has penetrated into extraterrestrial cavities.
At the end of February 2021, ESA announced the results of a competition for projects to search, mapping and detailed study of lunar caves, which started in 2019.
Five ideas were selected, on the basis of which the specialists developed three work scenarios: a preliminary exploration of gaps and caves from the surface of the Moon, the operation of lowering the research probe into the hole, and the study of the lava tube using autonomous planetary rovers.
As a result, two teams of researchers from the University of Würzburg and the University of Oviedo were selected, the projects of which, when combined, will give the maximum scientific impact.
Both projects focus on exploring lunar sinkholes and trying to look inside caverns that might start in sinkholes. All the necessary equipment and tools will be delivered to the lunar surface by the EL3 (European Large Logistics Lander) descent module. The cave exploration mission is expected to last one lunar day (14 Earth days) from the time the module is deployed.
A team from the University of Würzburg is developing a compact spherical Daedalus probe that will descend into a hole on a cable and will be equipped with a lidar and a stereo camera. The probe will help scientists create a 3D model of the interior of a lava tube and locate resource deposits and locations with stable levels of radiation load and temperature.
A team from the University of Oviedo is studying the possibility of launching a swarm of small robots inside the cave, in particular, engineers want to determine how to provide the devices with electricity and communication with the surface of the Moon. It is believed that this could be helped by a crane installed on a solar-powered rover, which will lower the device down to transmit power and data.
If such a device is ever sent to the Moon, it would be far more advanced than anything we’ve sent to another celestial body in the past. And overall, such a mission seems more suitable for a manned-mission to our satellite rather than a robotic expedition.
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• The European Space Agency. (n.d.). ESA plans mission to explore Lunar caves.