A $43 million Canadian-built lunar rover has one of the country’s most noted geology experts in charge of a science mission to the Moon.
The man tapped for the job is Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at Western University in London, Ontario, who spent decades working in the field to simulate Moon and Mars missions. He will serve as the principal investigator lead on the project. The rover is expected to lift off for the Moon’s South Pole in 2026.
“The first challenge to the science team, and all the contributing companies, is to get all of these science instruments completed,” said Osinski in an interview with SkyNews. He added that the mission is in various stages of development, and the suite is not yet finalized.
Osinski has worked alongside geologists, astronauts, and students to learn how to perform science in extreme environments, like Canada’s North. A main goal of the new mission will be to identify volatiles — lightweight elements like hydrogen, which is an indicator of water ice — in the South Pole region of the Moon. NASA astronauts are expected to land on Artemis 3 in that region as early as 2025.
“We have observations from satellites, but there’s a lot of questions about how much and what form it’s in,” said Osinski. He added that examining the South Pole could provide them with more insights into the formation of the Solar System. For example, the giant impact crater there may have brought up early (and deeper) material from the Moon that has not yet been examined.
Looking at one rocky body often brings insights to another, and the Moon and Earth are closely linked; it is believed the Moon formed from fragments of the Earth, and a Mars-sized impactor slammed into our young planet about 4.5 billion years ago.
The micro rover, to be built by Canadensys Aerospace, will weigh 30 kilograms and carry six instruments on board. It will aim for flatter terrain, as its six wheels are not expected to bring it up steep slopes. However, its small size will allow it to creep into permanently shadowed regions, where ice may lurk.
No mission has ever touched down in the lunar South Pole region before, but Osinski said the rover will borrow from the data that is available. This includes the Apollo human equatorial missions of the 1960s and 1970s, China’s recent far side landings with the Chang’e-4 rover and lander, and newer commercial missions from the United States that may touch down as soon as spring 2023. (The latter would be under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.)
The benefits to students in Canada will be immense, as they are already involved in the design phases of the mission and will be included in the operations. There may even be a type of mission control in Canada, similar to what NASA has for its own rover missions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California — although planning is still at an early stage, according to Osinski.
Overall, he said the project team’s immediate goal is to have a kickoff meeting in the next two weeks, finalizing the instruments, and starting the rover hardware development.
“Then we hope we’re about to turn our attention to longer-term stuff, like finalizing the science plan and looking at potential landing sites, so that we’re ready for when the final selection of the landing site happens,” said Osinski.
This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.