Britain's first mission to the Moon, named "Moonlight", will take place around 2010. If it does, it will become the first European country to go on a mission to the Moon without taking part with other European countries. The cost of space travel has fallen so much that Britain doesn't have to spend the vast sums that America spends on its space missions.
Britain needs to explore space on its own without the Americans and Europeans.
Britain eyes its first mission to the moon
10th January 2007
How Britain's "Moonlight" could look like
Britain's "Moonraker" will attempt to land on the Moon's surface
Britain could send its first un-manned mission to the moon by 2010 to study the lunar surface and find the best site for humans to inhabit, the BBC has reported.
A report by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., a top British space company, found the cost of space travel had fallen enough to let the government consider such a probe, it said.
Britain's astronomy funding agency, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, was understood to be considering the idea, the broadcaster added.
"We are going to go to the moon in order to generate new business opportunities, science opportunities and develop technology," Surrey Satellite Chief Executive Martin Sweeting, who wrote the report, told BBC News late on Tuesday.
The idea would be to launch two forays to the moon.
The first, named "Moonlight", would fire four darts the size of suitcases onto the moon's surface from orbit to test for quakes, tremors and other data, the BBC said.
If the mission was successful, a second probe, "Moonraker" would be launched with the aim of landing on the moon.
"Moonraker" would search for sites where humans could live as part of a plan by NASA to build a permanently occupied lunar base there, with flights slated to begin in 2020, the BBC said.
Science minister Malcolm Wicks was upbeat about the idea, forecasting that outer space would have an increasingly important economic role for Britain.
"The benefits are enormous not only to science but actually to the economy and what we are going to see in this century is space and British space excellence increasingly becoming part of the British economy and things we are good at," he told the BBC.
Britain's space dreams suffered a blow in 2003 with the failure of the Beagle 2 mission to seek out life on Mars (but that can be blamed on ESA's Mission Control in Germany).
Ground control to Major Tom: The British are hoping to launch a 21st century moon mission (this picture shows Earth in the distance)
Britain plans first Moon mission
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent
The instruments would be fired from orbit
Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council
The UK could soon have its first mission to the Moon - an orbiting spacecraft that would fire instruments into the lunar surface.
The "penetrators" would yield new information about the rocky interior.
The venture is being considered by Britain's astronomy funding agency, PParc, and may pass to the government as a full proposal.
The concept has been prepared by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, one of the country's leading space companies.
Its founder and chief executive, Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, has written a report which says the costs of space exploration have fallen sufficiently for the UK to think about launching such a probe by 2010.
Inside the Moon
Sir Martin proposes two options for Britain's first foray to the Moon.
The first, named Moonlight, would despatch four suitcase-sized darts on to the lunar surface from orbit. The darts would be sent into craters across a wide area.
They would hit the ground at a high velocity and penetrate to a depth of 2m (6ft).
There have been 12 astronauts on the Moon and more than 40 unmanned probes and yet we know surprisingly little about our nearest neighbour
Dr Andrew Coates, Mullard Space Science Lab
The darts could carry a small suite of instruments, such as seismometers to listen for "Moonquakes". Analysing these tremors would give scientists new insight into the make-up of the lunar interior.
Prof Alan Smith, of University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, which has contributed to the concept study, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The idea is that by about 2010 we will launch four scientific high-impact probes.
"They will land on the moon at about 400mph. They will make various scientific measurements sampling various parts of the moon."
Prof Smith added that the mission would also test technology which could be used to explore Mars.
According to Dr Andrew Coates, of the Mullard Space Science Lab and who has contributed to the concept study, the impactors would represent the first time there had been a detailed study of the Moon's sub-surface.
"There have been 12 astronauts on the Moon and more than 40 unmanned probes and yet we know surprisingly little about our nearest neighbour," he said.
"Previous missions have focussed on the side of the Moon that faces the Earth. Our plan with Moonlight is for the first time is to explore the mysterious far side of the Moon as well."
If Moonlight was successful, the proposal is to follow it up with a spacecraft called Moonraker. This is designed to land on the lunar surface.
Moonraker would attempt to land on the lunar surface
Its job would be to search for suitable sites for eventual human habitation, as part of the US space agency's (Nasa) plans to begin colonising Earth's satellite by 2020.
Until now, Britain's involvement in space has been as a partner in co-operation with Nasa and the European Space Agency (Esa); but Sir Martin feels the time is now right for the UK to push out on its own.
"Because, for the first time, it's now affordable," he told BBC News.
"Current small missions to the Moon cost about 500 million euros.
With advances in small satellites, we could probably cut the cost by at least a fifth."
The missions would give UK scientists more opportunities to study the Moon; but Sir Martin believes Britain should also go solo because it would present British industry with an incredible opportunity.
The Americans intend to set up a lunar colony; and the European, Indian and Chinese space agencies all have designs on the Moon.
Sir Martin thinks a UK "Moonshot" could provide the focus for British space companies to develop support technologies for what is rapidly turning into a 21st-Century space race.
"In the UK, we have tremendous expertise in this area. A UK Moon programme would enable us to get a foothold in what could turn out to be an economically important area for a relatively low cost," he argued.
Sir Martin's thinks the programme should be funded by industry and government.
His ideas will be made public on Wednesday. At the moment, they are with the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. The next stage will be to get approval and financial support by the business and research communities; and, crucially, to get a government go-ahead. But Sir Martin believes that with enough support, he will be able to get a British probe to the Moon by the decade's end.