Place your bets for a chance of posterity on Lunar Mission One

When I learned about the unveiling of Lunar Mission One (LM1) , a few days after the global excitement about ESA’a Rosetta mission following Philae’s 12 November 2014 landing on a far-distant comet and success with its core experiments, it did cross my mind that here was a bit of a let-down in PR terms. There’s an old saying – ‘What can follow the Lord Mayor’s Show?’ – and the thrill of Philae’s landing rivalled any of the events at the 2012 London Olympics, plus the science it and Rosetta promise is likely to be about as leading-edge as it will get for quite some time. So what does LM1 offer that might achieve a similar scoop, and indeed your prospect of virtual immortality?

Unlike NASA or ESA missions, LM1 is to be a crowd-funded private enterprise by Lunar Missions Ltd, and for that the subscribers will want something in exchange. Through Kickstarter anyone can have a punt to help raise the initial £600 thousand goal by midnight on 17 December. Apparently that sum is to fund 3 years full-time work by a professional management team to raise further mission funds from commercial partners to take the project further: it will cost at least £0.5 billion. At this stage you can pledge any sum you wish, but what you get in return depends on your generosity. Highlights are: for £3 to 15 the reward is ‘Our eternal thanks and a place in space history’; >£15 gets you a certificate and a place in an online ‘wall of thanks’; >£30 escalates to your name being included in a digital ‘time capsule’ taken to the Moon and buried, plus membership of the Lunar Missions Club; >£60 entitles you to a voucher to invest in your own digital ‘memory box’ to go in the capsule – one of ‘millions and millions’ – and a vote on key decisions; for >£300 you can ‘Meet the Team’; >£600 gets you annual meetings and a chance to ballot for the landing module’s name; for higher contributions there are invitations to the launch (>£1200), sealing of the digital archive capsule and your name engraved on the lander (>£3000); and – wait for it – you get a place in the viewing gallery at Mission Control if you can stump up more than £5000.

For those contributing £60 or more, what goes in the much vaunted digital ‘Memory Box’ is on a sliding scale, from the equivalent of a text message to a strand of your hair and the DNA in it. One catch, if you are thinking of resurrection, is that it will be at the bottom of a 5 cm diameter hole at least 20 m deep. The buried digital archive will also contain a record of all living species on Earth and the entire history of humankind to date, but a continually updated copy will also be freely available online. Wikipedia seems not to be associated for some reason, but every item in this public archive will be peer-reviewed through an editorial board to whose deliberations schools, colleges and universities can contribute. The buried, multi-Terabyte, digital capsule is said to have a life of perhaps a billion years. Currently the longest lived data storage (~1500 years) is still ink on vellum, whereas the most advanced static and optical digital media are estimated to have a maximum 100 year lifetime, subject to technical obsolescence. On the plus side, privacy is guaranteed, partly by the nature of the storage. So, for £10000 Joe and Josie Soap will figure on a kind of cenotaph but who- or whatever digs up the module will learn absolutely nothing about them and but conceivably could clone them from their anonymous strands of hair.

What are the science goals for an LM1 landing scheduled for 2024 that cannot be achieved by lunar-lander and sample-return missions currently under state-funded development by China, Russia, NASA, Japan and India before LM1 reaches the ‘Go/No Go’ stage? The landing is planned for the Moon’s South Pole, on the rim of a major crater. There, LM1 will drill a hole to between 20-100 m deep, using a maximum of 1 kW of solar power – this ‘will also be a major leap forward for safer and more efficient remote drilling on Earth’: make of that claim what you will. Such a hole is said to enable sampling of pristine lunar rock in 15 cm lengths of 2.5 cm diameter core through the debris of the impact that caused the crater. The core samples are to be chemically analysed in the lander to test the hypothesis that Earth and Moon shared their origins. Future missions may pick up the cores and return them for more detailed analysis on Earth. But consider this: the oldest rocks known from the Apollo programme are approximately 4.4 billion year-old, feldspar-rich anorthosites that are thought to have formed the lunar highlands through fractional crystallisation of an early magma ocean that immediately followed Moon formation. Any unfractionated lunar material is only likely, if at all, at far greater depths than 20 m, and none was found or even suggested among the 0.4 tonnes of samples returned by the Apollo missions, which have been repeatedly analysed using advanced instruments. Indeed, near-surface debris from a crater rim is unlikely to be any more diverse lithologically than the various kinds of lunar surface from which the Apollo samples were collected, and may be contaminated by whatever caused the cratering and by the immense, long-lived heating at the impact site itself.

filedesc Lunar Ferroan Anorthosite #60025 (Pla...
Lunar Ferroan Anorthosite #60025 (Plagioclase Feldspar). Collected by Apollo 16 from the Lunar Highlands near Descartes Crater. (credit: National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.)

Compared with the prospect of advancing understanding of the origins of life and the Earth’s oceans, and the early stages of Solar System evolution from data provided by Rosetta and Philae, LM1 might seem less exciting, though the buzz being hyped is that it would be a People’s Mission. Yet those who place their punt on it and the commercial concerns that ultimately earn from it are two different sets of people. The ambitious global education wing will, of course, face competition from the growth of MOOCs in the science, technology, engineering and maths area that have a considerable head start, but it does have a noble ring to it. Whatever, if you make a pledge before midnight on 17 December this year and the ‘pump-priming’ target is not met by then, you pay nothing. If £600 thousand is raised there is no going back and only 10 years to wait. But what a challenge, you may well think… LM1 definitely has the edge over Virgin Galactica, but here on Earth there are probably a great many more vital challenges than either.

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