A UK-led mission to put a satellite in orbit around the moon that could one day enable lunar colonists to use mobile phones to communicate with each other has inched a step closer to blast off.
The British National Space Centre (BNSC) has announced it will undertake a technical feasibility study of the Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment (MoonLite) mission.
The study will report with a full mission schedule and costs late next year. Depending on the outcome, the MoonLite mission could launch by around 2014, the BNSC said.
The plan for the mission is to put a satellite in orbit around the moon for use as a telecoms station, relaying data from a network of geophysical instruments on the moon's surface back to Earth.
The instruments will gather data on the strength and frequency of earthquakes on the moon and the thickness of the crust and core. They will also be able to determine whether organic material or water is present in the moon's polar regions.
In addition to relaying this scientific data back to Earth, the satellite system should also ensure a full four-bar mobile signal for lunar colonists living in a moon base that Nasa wants to build after 2020.
Minister of state for science and innovation, Lord Drayson, said the mission could resolve fundamental questions about the composition of the moon.
The BNSC said no decision will be made to proceed with, build or launch MoonLite until the study has reported its findings.
A tender process for the feasibility study contract will run until March 2009. The study itself is expected to take nine months and will be supported by Nasa, which is assessing any potential contribution it could make to the science and technology behind the mission.