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Satellite Communications Technology

Helping Heracles EL3 to survive the long, cold, dark nights on the Moon

(6 December 2019 - ESA) ESA has kicked off an activity with Prototec – a NORCE company – and its partners Airbus and Air Liquide to develop alternative technologies for surviving the lunar night.

When the European Large Logistic Lander (EL3) lands on the Moon, some of its cargo might require to survive the lunar night that lasts up to two weeks on Earth.

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Artist's impression of Heracles lander and rover on the Moon (courtesy: ESA/ATG Medialab)

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Heracles cargo Moon landing (courtesy: ESA/ATG Medialab)

A sample return mission, the original mission for the Heracles scenario, would require camping out for at least two nights: a full day-night-day-night-day cycle, which takes 70 Earth days because of the approximately 28 days it take for the Moon to do a full rotation of its axis. The sample collection rover is planned to continue operating for a whole Earth year – 12 Moon day-night cycles – to prospect lunar resources and perform surface science.

Different technologies exist to address the problem and ESA is interested in considering all viable options, of which regenerative fuel cell technology is a very promising one. The fuel cells would convert water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity generated by solar arrays. When night falls, hydrogen and oxygen would be recombined to turn the reactants back into energy and water.

The Heracles EL3 programme is set on establishing a European lunar cargo landing capability based on Ariane 64. It will allow for two kinds of missions: scientifically-driven missions such as returning well-preserved and well-characterised samples from unexplored and inaccessible lunar regions, or delivering cargo to support human missions on NASA’s Artemis programme. The missions of Heracles EL3 should be ready by 2027 to fit properly into the plans of ESA’s international partners.

The Heracles EL3 system should be capable of delivering up to 1700 kg of cargo to the Moon as a cargo mission, or retrieve 15 kg of precious samples from the surface and bring them back to Earth for analysis by European scientists in its sample-return configuration.

Prototec and partners will perform a preliminary design and requirement specification for a fuel-cell based night survival system based on requirements formulated in the frame of the Heracles EL3 sample return scenario.

About Heracles

ESA is working with the Canadian and Japanese space agencies to prepare the Heracles robotic mission to the Moon in the mid-to-late-2020s. Using the Gateway as a halfway point, a robotic rover will scout the terrain in preparation for the future arrival of astronauts, and deliver lunar samples to Earth.

This mission offers the best and earliest chance to deliver Moon samples to Earth on NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

The Heracles European Large Logistic Lander enables a series of proposed ESA missions to the Moon that could be configured for different operations such as cargo delivery, returning samples from the Moon or prospecting resources found on the Moon.

The Heracles European Large Logistic Lander will bring a sample return package to a previously unexplored region near the lunar South Pole as an interesting area for researchers.

Other goals of the missions include testing new hardware, demonstrating technology and gaining experience in operations while strengthening international partnerships in exploration. Its development will provide an Ariane 64-based lunar cargo lander available for potential future commercialisation by European industry.

The sample return mission based on the Heracles European Large Logistic Lander enables an international programme to use the Gateway to the fullest and enable scientists on Earth to select and return samples of their choice using artificial intelligence technology that is more capable than on previous missions.

Goals also include testing new hardware, demonstrating technology and gaining experience in operations while strengthening international partnerships in exploration.

A small lander with a rover inside weighing around 1800 kg in total will land and be monitored by astronauts from the space gateway. An ascent module will take off from the surface and return to the gateway with samples taken by the rover.

Heracles will demonstrate these technologies and prove their value for humans. Later missions will include a pressurised rover driven by astronauts and an ascent module for the crew to return home.

Communications are key, with satellites providing high-speed networks to operate rovers from orbit, including feeding visuals from cameras, control signals to move the cameras, arms and wheels, and transmitting scientific data.

When the ascent module carrying the sample container arrives, the Gateway’s robotic arm will capture and berth it with the outpost’s airlock for unpacking and transfer of the container to Orion and subsequent flight to Earth with returning astronauts.

Heracles is an international programme to use the Gateway to the fullest and deliver samples to scientists on Earth using new technology that is more capable and lighter than previous missions.