Open University plays role in world's first private commercial moon mission

Dr Simeon Barber who developed the Peregrine Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer.
Credit: OU/PA
Dr Simeon Barber who developed the Peregrine Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer. Credit: OU/PA

A private spacecraft carrying an instrument built by UK scientists is due to make history as it begins its journey to the moon.

Built by US space company Astrobiotic, the Peregrine Mission One (PM1) is set to become the first private probe to land on the lunar surface.

Onboard will be an instrument known as the Peregrine Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS), which was developed in the UK by scientists from The Open University(OU) and the Science Technology Facilities Council (STFC) RAL Space - the UK'snational space lab.

The device will analyse the thin lunar atmosphere as well as find out more about how water might be moving around the moon.

The project was first announced back in 2019.

For many years, scientists believed the moon was bone dry and any water detected in the samples from Apollo missions were thought to be contamination from Earth.

However, more recent missions have revealed the presence of water and, in 2020, NASA confirmed the presence of water molecules in sunlit areas of the moon.

Dr Simeon Barber, of The Open University, said: "Various new data in the last decade has overturned the Apollo-era notion of the moon as a bone-dry place.

"We have seen hints of ice at the cold lunar poles, and suggestions of water (or the related hydroxyl molecule) globally, as well as new analyses of Apollo samples showing small pockets of water within the lunar rock itself."

Understanding the lunar water cycle is crucial for future exploration of the moon - and will be vital in creating a sustainable moon base as part of NASA's ongoing Artemis project.

Dr Barber added: "We are interested in how these water molecules travel through the lunar exosphere (atmosphere) under the influence of day-night temperature cycles, eventually reaching the super cold polar regions where they accumulate slowly as frost or ice layers.

The make up of the Peregrine Lunar Lander Credit: PA Images

"This transport through the exosphere is the link connecting the various sources of water, and their eventual fate locked up in polar cold traps.

"PITMS will measure the composition and density of the lunar exosphere through the lunar day, allowing us to deduce the processes at play on the moon today, and by extension, throughout the moon's history and on other similar planetary bodies."

The launch window for the Peregrine lander opens on 8 January at 7.18am UK time, with the spacecraft due to blast off aboard a Vulcan Centaur rocket, built by US aerospace manufacturer United Launch Alliance, from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Libby Jackson, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency - which provided £14 million in funding to develop the instrument through its European Space Agency membership, said: "The Peregrine lunar lander will help pave the way for further exploration of our solar system.

"Witnessing the first instrument from the UK, and indeed Europe, launch to the moon is a hugely exciting moment.

"It's fantastic to see our skilled UK experts at the heart of an international mission that will support future long-term presence in space."

Assuming it launches on 8 January, officials say the spacecraft could attempt a lunar landing on 23 February.

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