Artist's impression of the Heracles rover returning with lunar samples.
ESA is working with the Canadian and Japanese space agencies to prepare the Heracles robotic mission to the Moon in the mid-to-late-2020s. Using the Gateway as a halfway point, a robotic rover will scout the terrain in preparation for the future arrival of astronauts, and deliver lunar samples to Earth.
This mission offers the best and earliest chance to deliver Moon samples to Earth on NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
Goals also include testing new hardware, demonstrating technology and gaining experience in operations while strengthening international partnerships in exploration.
A small lander with a rover inside weighing around 1800 kg in total will land and be monitored by astronauts from the space gateway. An ascent module will take off from the surface and return to the gateway with samples taken by the rover.
Heracles will demonstrate these technologies and prove their value for humans. Later missions will include a pressurised rover driven by astronauts and an ascent module for the crew to return home.
Communications are key, with satellites providing high-speed networks to operate rovers from orbit, including feeding visuals from cameras, control signals to move the cameras, arms and wheels, and transmitting scientific data.
When the ascent module carrying the sample container arrives, the Gateway’s robotic arm will capture and berth it with the outpost’s airlock for unpacking and transfer of the container to Orion and subsequent flight to Earth with returning astronauts.
Heracles is an international programme to use the Gateway to the fullest and deliver samples to scientists on Earth using new technology that is more capable and lighter than previous missions.