Europe is not known for lofty ambitions in the field of space exploration. In the grand scheme of things, a robotic mission to the red planet, known as ExoMars, is pretty much it.

That is why some European governments, Germany and Italy among them, see an opening to invest in exploration-enabling technologies that could lead to future robotic—and ultimately human—missions to the Moon.

When the European Space Agency's (ESA's) ruling council meets this week to hash out a multiyear spending plan, one item high on Germany's agenda is funding continued development of a robotic Moon lander that incorporates technologies and hardware for Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). The lander, developed by prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation, could visit the lunar south pole by 2019 if ESA approves the estimated €500 million ($650 million) mission, including €300-350 million for development, manufacturing, test, launch and operations.

Astrium recently completed a preliminary system requirements review of the capability under a €13 million ESA study contracted in 2010, 71% of which was funded by Germany with participation from Spain, Canada, Belgium, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

The project's next phase calls for ESA member states to pony up another €70-100 million for continued design and development. They must decide on that next month when ESA ministers meet to set a multiyear spending plan.

Astrium officials say at least 11 countries want to support the next phase of the lander's development, and that the project's Phase B2 could go forward with just 70% of proposed funding.

Designed to launch aboard a Soyuz rocket equipped with a Fregat upper stage, the lander is expected to have a mass of 2,300 kg (5,070 lb.) at separation. The half-year mission would use only solar energy for operation on the lunar surface, where the lander's robotic arm would place a small Moon rover and various stationary experiments on the surface to conduct scientific research. Results gathered in situ would be transmitted to Earth to provide an initial understanding of the Moon's polar region, as well as supply basic information for future human exploration missions.

“We have never been at the back side of the Moon,” says Ralf Jaumann, head of planetary geology at German aerospace center's Institute of Planetary Research. “We have just a few probes on the front and we don't know much about the inside.”

Despite the potential for scientific advancement, the primary goal of this lunar lander mission is to demonstrate the capability to execute a soft, precision landing. The vehicle is to be powered by five lightweight, 500-newton European Apogee Motors being developed by Astrium Satellites. During the lander's decent, its precision movements would be guided in part by six 220-newton thrusters developed for the ATV, along with technologies that enable the cargo tug's unique rendezvous and docking capability.

Italy is also keen to develop technologies that could enable future missions to the Moon or other bodies. With financial backing from the Piedmont regional government, Thales Alenia Space-Turin is developing a spate of demonstrations, including a pressurized surface rover to ferry astronauts across the Moon's surface.

Part of the €10-million Systems and Technologies for Space Exploration (Steps) program, the rover incorporates an inflatable airlock for astronaut entry/exit and an innovative electric motor wheel capable of traversing the rugged, dusty lunar terrain.

Steps Project Manager Piero Messidoro says the Steps technologies are being developed to fit with Europe's space exploration road map, including the robotic lunar lander and Thales Alenia Space-led ExoMars. “We have tried to be complementary to existing initiatives in ESA or in other countries, selecting areas in which we have both an interest and a good chance of success,” he says.

Thales Alenia Space is developing a habitable terrestrial vehicle to explore the surface of the Moon or Mars. To see a video of a half-scale demonstrator in action, check out the digital edition of AW&ST on leading tablets and smartphones, or go to