Open University scientists are leading the development of a miniaturised chemical laboratory to find water on the Moon.
Access to lunar water would be a 'game changer', enabling the Moon to be a staging post for exploring deeper into space.
The mini laboratory, called ProSPA, will use mass spectrometry technology developed by scientists in The Open University's Space Instrumentation group for the successful Rosetta comet mission.
It will be built by an international consortium led by The Open University, who have just received initial funding of €3 million (£2.5 million) from the European Space Agency.
The ProSPA mini-lab will form part of the PROSPECT instrument package on board the Russian-led Moon mission Luna-27, scheduled to land near the Moon's South Pole in 2021.
"If we can extract water from the Moon's surface we will have drinking water."PROSPECT will deploy a robotic drill to collect samples of Moon rock which the mini-lab will test for volatiles (chemicals with low boiling points), including water.
Recent Moon orbiter missions have hinted at the presence of water ice around the lunar poles, which are very different to the dry dusty equatorial regions visited by NASA astronauts in the 1960s and 70s.
Deep freeze poles
This makes the lunar poles the 'most scientifically interesting' areas, according to ProSPA lead scientist Dr Simeon Barber.
"Because the Moon has no seasons, there are sites near the poles that get no sunlight and have some of the coldest temperatures in the solar system.
"We believe that water may have accumulated there over billions of years, in a permanent deep freeze.”
Landing a robotic spacecraft there and detecting this water would answer this important scientific question, and could also catalyse a new era of human missions to the Moon, says Dr Barber.
With water available locally the South Pole could be 'a great place for a lunar base'.
"If we can extract water from the Moon's surface we will have drinking water, and we can also split the water into its components to get hydrogen and oxygen for fuel."
This would be a 'game-changer for space exploration', opening the way to a lunar launch pad for spacecraft, he says.
"Launching rockets from Earth consumes masses of fuel, but we need much less to blast off from the Moon, because of its lower gravity.
"The Moon could become a base for robotic exploration of the rest of the solar system."
ProSPA is being developed by a consortium led by The Open University, UK, under contract to the PROSPECT prime contractor Leonardo S.p.A., Italy, within a programme of and funded by the European Space Agency.