Professor Ian Crawford, Birkbeck University
A British-led consortium have announced plans to send an unmanned robot to the South Pole of the Moon to drill down 100 metres into the lunar surface, retrieve 4.5 billion year old rock samples, and deposit a time capsule! But this isnít a project paid for by the government: the £500 million required for the mission - which is set to launch in 2024 - will be completely crowd funded, meaning public donations will support it. As an incentive, if you donate £60, you can secure some data storage on the time capsule to send up some selfies or perhaps your favourite song, to be stored for up to a billion years on the Moon! Ian Crawford, one of the members of Lunar Mission One, as the project is known, spoke to Chris Smith...
Ian - Well, it does have a very strong science case. And scientifically, itís important to realise that no space mission ever in the history of the space age has landed at either pole of the Moon. So, this is a completely unexplored territory. And the south pole of the moon is especially interesting, but in particular, the surface soils at the lunar poles are very cold and itís considered quite likely that water and other volatiles delivered by comets may be trapped there. And confirming this would be a key scientific goal of the mission. But also, the south pole of the moon sits just within the giant south pole Aitken basin which is the biggest impact structure known in the Solar System. Itís on the far side of our Moon and itís 12 km deep. Itís deep enough that it may have extracted samples from the lunar mantle which we haven't got samples of yet. And if we could sample the lunar mantle material, then in terms of confirming our theories for the origin of the Moon and how similar the Moon is to the Earth then samples of the lunar mantle are of particular scientific interest. So, those are the two main things I think. there are also others. The south pole of the Moon is a possible site for astronomical observations of the wider universe and various other things. But thatís the main science case.
Chris - It sounds like a pretty compelling case and will answer some important scientific questions. But given that Europe have just this month spent about a billion [Pounds] getting to a comet to learn a bit more about where our Solar System came from, why is this something that is being crowd-sourced? Why aren't governments paying for this?
Ian - Well, I donít think these are mutually exclusive, are they? I mean, I think I can see very strong reasons why governments should fund lunar exploration. But then there are very strong reasons why governments should fund the exploration of comets and Jupiter, and Mars, and the Solar System is a very big place. So, Iíd be delighted if governments were to spend more exploring the moon. But given that governments and government-funded space agencies donít have the resources to do everything that they would like to do and arguably they should do, this is an alternative model really where people who perhaps think, wish that their governments were spending more, people will actually be delighted if more of their taxes went on space exploration rather than other things. But thatís not happening. This is an opportunity for people who feel like that to get involved. I mean, itís completely voluntary of course. You just go to the Kickstarter website and contribute if you wish. But if you do think that government should be spending more, in a sense, this is a way for people to put their money where their mouths are really and just get involved in space exploration.
Chris - The average Kickstarter campaign isnít for 500 million though, is it?
Ian - No.
Chris - This is a pretty substantial amount. Do you think you're going to succeed in raising this money?
Ian - No. This Kickstarter campaign, itís far beyond the resources of the Kickstarter. The Kickstarter is to raise $1 million in order to define the science case, define the engineering requirements, to set in place what would be required to gather this much larger sum of money by Ė public subscription requires a huge amount of organisation. But the Kickstarter campaign is to raise an initial $1 million essentially, to get the project kick-started.
Chris - Thatís why itís called ĎKickstarterí.
Ian - Absolutely.
Chris - Letís just return to the Moonís surface for a moment then. So if you are successful and you can get this probe there, what will the probe do because weíve rather glossed over that and said itís going to get some samples. But how is it going to get those samples, and what will it do with them?
Ian - The key science driver is to land at the south pole of the Moon and to drill somewhere between 20 meters and 100 meters depth and extract the samples which would then be studied with a suite of instruments. And then having done that, you're left with a hole. And so, the question is, what to do with it. Now scientifically, we can use that hole to deploy scientific instruments down the borehole to measure the rate of heat flow from the lunar mantle to place a seismometer to detect moonquakes and things. But in addition, the idea is, having extracted the borehole, drill the hole for scientific samples. Itís then available for us to put in place these time capsules. And, really, 100 meters below the lunar surface of the lunar south pole, essentially, this time capsule will be there forever. Itíll still be there when the Sun becomes a red giant, probably.
Chris - Will the data still be readable because I know that the Doomsday laser discs, just 20 years after they were made, can't be read anymore. Theyíve all deteriorated.
Ian - Yes. So, there are many possibilities of course and I'm not the person to talk to you about them because itís my job to advise on the science case!