BRITAIN is striking out on its own in lunar exploration, with ambitious plans to carry out experiments on the Moon using UK technology.
A study conducted for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) has outlined proposals for two all-British Moon missions.
The first, named Moonlight, could be launched by 2010 and would see four suitcase-sized darts fired on to the moon's surface from an orbiting probe.
The darts, which carry geologically-sensitive equipment, would be shot into craters at 400mph, penetrating to a depth of 6ft, sending back information about possible "moonquakes" and the composition and temperature of the moon's core.
If successful, the mission could be followed by another called Moonraker, after the James Bond film. This would land a spacecraft on Moon and carry out physical geological studies that could used in the search for suitable sites for manned bases.
The study was prepared by Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, founder and chief executive of Surrey Satellite Technology, a University of Surrey spin-out company headquartered in Guildford. He said the cost of space exploration had fallen sufficiently to allow Britain to mount a "go-it-alone" Moon mission paid for jointly by the government and industry.
Britain's space ventures have been carried out jointly with the American space agency NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). "Current small missions to the Moon cost around 500 million [335 million]," Sir Martin said. "With advances in small satellites, we could probably cut the cost by at least a fifth."
He believes going solo to the Moon would be a major boost to British industry: "In the UK, we have tremendous expertise in this area. A UK Moon programme would enable us to get a foothold in what could ... be an economically important area for a relatively low cost."
It is estimated that the Moonlight project alone would cost between 50 million and 100 million. A British moonshot would allow UK space companies to develop support technologies for what is turning out to be a 21st century space race, said Sir Martin.
The United States hopes to start building lunar colonies by 2020 and the European, Indian and Chinese space agencies are all planning missions to the Moon.
Andy Phipps, project manager for the two British lunar projects, said they were a natural progression for the company, which has built 26 spacecraft for various countries, including the US. "We have been looking at more demanding missions, in particular lunar ones for five or ten years now," he said.
"This will be the first UK mission to the Moon and that in itself is interesting. I think it is relatively ambitious, we're slowly pushing the envelope of what we can do."
He added that, while Britain was a long way from sending people to the Moon's surface, he believed that the missions could provide vital infrastructure and support for lunar bases, and place the UK at the forefront of lunar colonisation. Meanwhile, Dr Andy Ball, a member of PPARC involved in considering the science behind the project, said that the proposals were a sign of a resurgence of interest in the moon not seen since the US Apollo space programme in the 1960s and Seventies.
He said: "With this sort of project, the UK is starting to feel its way towards what its role will be in this phase of lunar exploration."
Dr Ball added that it was vital to be involved now, as "sooner or later, people are going to living on the Moon".
"I think whether it takes 15 years or another 30, it's going to happen," he said. "At the beginning of the last century, people may have speculated as to whether anyone would end up living at the South Pole, but here we are with many dozens of people living at Antarctica and doing science there."
Dr Ball said that the Moonlight project would give greater insight into the structure of the Moon. "We still don't know how big the core of the Moon is," he said. "And that's something we need to help understand the formation scenario for the Earth-Moon system."
He said that there was still much to learn about the Moon and that recent studies have shown that it was geologically active more recently than had been thought previously.
UK'S PLACE IN SPACE
THE US and Russia may have been the most prominent countries in the space race, but Britain's programme has a long history, dating back to 1933, with the creation of the British Interplanetary Society whose members included the author Sir Arthur C Clarke, below.
He conceived the idea of geostationary telecommunications satellite.
Though linked with the unsuccessful Blue Steel nuclear project, the British space programme did produce Black Knight, which launched Prospero X-3, the first and only British satellite to be sent heavenwards using an all-British rocket in 1971. Communication with the satellite, which contained a single experiment to test solar cells, ended only in 1996.
British scientists have continued to be involved in the development of major space projects, including an attempt at a reusable space plane using air-breathing rocket engines.
The most high-profile British effort, however, was in 2004, when Beagle 2 was sent to study Mars for signs of life. Unfortunately, the satellite was lost when it failed to respond after landing and has never been recovered. The government spent more than 22 million on Beagle 2, with the remainder of the total 44 million coming from the private sector.