Fly me to the Moon...: The European Student Moon Orbiter

Updated Monday, 24th December 2007
In 2011, the European Student Moon Orbiter will be blasting off. Andrew Morris popped in to see the preparations.

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Last week I was lucky enough to travel to Noordwijk just outside of Amsterdam to take part in the Phase A review of the European Student Moon Orbiter (ESMO). The review itself was held at ESTEC (European Space and Technology Centre) which was exciting enough since it is a hot pot of cutting edge ideas and technology. If proof was really required on the way to the cafeteria one day I saw a sign for a meeting that was being conducted during the same week as the review.

“Technology for Artificial Gravity and Microgravity Simulations” and that was being held in the conference rooms named Einstein and Newton. Genius.

Before I tell you how the whole review went I think it would be best if I first explained what ESMO actually is. ESMO is a spacecraft which is destined to launch in 2011 and will go on to orbit the moon. The reason why this mission is especially special is that the design, development, construction and operation of the space craft will all be accomplished by students drawn from the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA). Each subsystem of the space craft is looked after by a separate student group often reflecting the speciality of their host institution. Examples of this are the Italian team in charge of understanding the thermal environment of the space craft and the Belgium team looking after the Narrow Angle Camera which is to form part of ESMO’s payload.

The Moon

[Image: copyright: Luc Viatour]

The Open University team (which I am part of) are involved within ESMO as part of the payload. There are in total four payload teams; The Open University team, the before mentioned Belgium camera team, the Canadian Lunette team and the Italian Micro Radiometer team. The Open University team is unusual in the fact that we arrived to the project without an instrument that we wanted to automatically include which allowed us to take the role of payload backup. The Open University has a multi disciplined scientific research centre which falls under the umbrella of CEPSAR (Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomy Research). This meant there was a level of expertise in a range of possible areas so our first job was to narrow down our options.

We looked at what the other teams were bringing to the table in terms of science that would be conducted. Following this we went away and looked at shiny trinketry we could add which would not cover the same ground (there is also an impressive armada of current and planned missions heading for the moon) and fit neatly within the package that would be the final spacecraft. We considered flying x-ray florescence spectrometers, dust detectors, radiation detectors, magnetometers and even a simple outreach payload (this would include photos, music and words which the public could add and have flown to the moon). After taking these suggestions and a few others back to the other groups and conducting a little bit of outreach with a local secondary school we decided to follow up and develop a biological instrument. The newly created BioLEx (Biological Lunar Experiment) was born.

The plans were drawn up on how it would work and we set up a few test experiments to make sure everything would work as we expected it to. From this we could say what the characteristics of the BioLEx instrument would be such as its mass, size and how much power it would require. Armed with this information our teams work was presented in Noordwijk for the review panel to...

BioLEx wooed the audience and passed the review with some issues that needed to be addressed before its final inclusion aboard ESMO. These points were anticipated and we were already working on them prior to the workshop. The review panel however, which were all experts having each been part of many missions, were extremely helpful and have given us all the support we could have hoped for, enabling us to tackle the outstanding actions even quicker. If passing the review was not enough the icing for the BioLEx cake was being made a primary payload allowing us access to the sophisticated design tools reserved for the most vital components of the spacecraft. The panel also approved ESMO to enter into Phase B where the design will be secured and set (Phase A was fixing the requirements each subsystem would have to provide to one another to ensure a successful mission).

Currently it is a very exciting time for everyone involved in ESMO and a great way to enter into the festive break.

In the New Year the really hard work will begin especially seeing that all the student teams have to design the spacecraft in their free time. We are all either undergraduate students with a full day’s study (sometimes the ESMO work can be integrated into a module if you are lucky) or postgraduates which means adding another juggling ball that must be kept in the air. Despite all the hard work we all enjoy making something like ESMO come together. I can not think of another skills development program which allows you to make and operate your very own spacecraft! Hopefully more news in the future.

Merry Christmas and have a great New Year!


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