FEATURE The moon has always fascinated and puzzled mankind. And within the next few years, more of its secrets will be revealed when a group of Umeå researchers and students will be first out to measure the electric field of the moon's surface. Already, space enthusiasts in the project Umeå Lunar Venture are already busy developing the measuring instruments that will equip the rocket. The rocket launch is planned to take place in 2019.
The moon is our closest neighbour in space and indeed the only heavenly body that man has ever visited. In the 1960s–1970s, the moon was a hot destination, then our first outpost in space was abandoned, instead exploring other parts of the solar system. Since 1976, only two moon landings have been carried out. China sent up a robot-controlled moon lander in 2013 with a rover, an unmanned land vehicle, to do geological surveys on the moon. In January 2019 it was time again – then the Chinese space probe Chang'E-4 landed on the far side of the moon. Researchers at the Institute for Space Physics, IRF, in Kiruna, Sweden, developed one of the instruments on board.
The initiative to measure the electric field of the moon comes from Space Science Sweden, a group of space enthusiasts in Umeå. Together with the German engineering community PTScientists, they participated in Google's Lunar Xprize competition, which was to send a privately funded rocket to the moon. PTScientists, in collaboration with the car manufacturer Audi, has developed a rover that can run over the moon surface, place out measuring equipment and send data back to the ground.
The Germans called for enthusiasts who wanted to develop experiments to perform on the moon. Space Science Sweden accepted the challenge – and was awarded the assignment.
None of the participants in the Google competition managed to take home the prize before the competition time expired in March 2018, but several of the participants had already signed up for rocket launches, including PTScientists, so the work in Umeå Lunar Venture continues. The launch is scheduled for the end of 2019.
The space enthusiasts in Umeå Lunar Venture are to develop an instrument to measure the electric field of the moon's surface. Such measurements have never been done before, only computer simulations of the electric field have been made. The electric field sets the moon dust in motion, which can interfere with electronic equipment. More knowledge about it is important for future journeys to the moon and similar celestial bodies.
Research teams in space physics and optical physics contribute with their skills in the project, while volunteer students periodically participated in the work. In the summer 2016, a course was held at Umeå University, where the students were allowed to contribute to the design of the instrument.
An important goal of the project is to show that it is possible to develop scientifically relevant space instruments with small resources – and that most of the work can be performed by students. The measurements of the electric field on the moon should also result in at least two scientific articles and several popular science publications. Another objective of the project is to show the capabilities of Umeå University, the Department of Physics and its students.
Text: Anna-Lena Lindskog