Image: ESA/Finmeccanica

European scientists have unveiled an ice drill designed to penetrate three to six feet into the frigid lunar surface. According to plan, this device will start drilling into the Moon’s south polar regions in 2020.

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Developed for the European Space Agency (ESA) by tech company Finmeccanica in Nerviano, Italy, it’ll be the first drill to penetrate the Moon’s frozen “regolith.” Once it bores through the ice, it’ll autonomously deliver samples to a chemical laboratory, which is currently under development by engineers at the UK’s Open University.

The Moon’s southern polar region is exceptionally cold, with some areas completely obscured from the Sun. These polar regions, which feature shadowed areas and permanently dark craters, likely contain water ice and other frozen materials. The purpose of the mission is to prospect for elements and investigate the potential use of these resources. Looking ahead, this survey could lead to a habitable base on the Moon’s far side.

The development team has already tested a prototype of the drill under simulated lunar conditions reaching -140 degrees C (-220 F). But the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon are likely much colder, reaching lows of -240 degrees C (-400 F). The ice drill will have to reach those tolerances in subsequent tests if it’s going to work.

The plan right now is to get the drill to the Moon’s south pole on Russia’s Luna-27 lander, which is scheduled to launch in 2020. But due to recent budget cuts at the Russian space agency Roscosmos, we may have to wait until 2025.

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[ESA]