According to Stanley Kubrick, we should have had this by 2001, but predicting the future is tricky, and, after all, what’s a few decades (or centuries) in the big scheme of things. At any rate, that’s the long range planning being mooted about in a recent paper in Acta Astronautica. The idea was introduced by Jan Worner of ESA in 2015, and this paper (in press in mid-2017, by B. Sherwood of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) develops the idea further. I should note that the paper was written in a private capacity by Mr. Sherwood, and not in his capacity as an employee of JPL.
The paper looks at how such a base might be built, what political and industrial needs might be fulfilled, and how it would advance knowledge and science. Basically, this blog will just briefly re-cap some highlights from the paper, which is very interesting, but probably difficult for most people to access.
The International Space Station (ISS) shows how difficult it is to make practical use of off-Earth environments. The ISS and its precursors (MIR and Skylab) were supposed to be platforms for industrial research and development (micro-gravity manufacturing and so forth), but it has been tough to really get the private sector involved. The research that has been done has tended to be basic research, which is important, but it is also expensive for governments to foot the bill.
The Likely Participants
The model preferred in the paper is the mixed-use business park. It is hoped that governments could provide the infrastructure (i.e. the base), which could be used by private companies on a cost-recovery basis. Thus, no individual company would have to develop expertise in building and maintaining a base. Governments have provided these kick-starts in the past, often for national security reasons but also for industrial development (e.g. Manhattan project, the internet, St. Lawrence Seaway).
The moon is becoming an interesting target once more for governments and space agencies – it is close, highly visible, but still difficult, and thus, getting there continues to be a feat to impress the world. The U.S., Russia, China have all had lunar missions, including landers and rovers (of course, the U.S. even had manned missions). The European Space Agency could probably do it, if it chose to.
These countries could either pursue the venture independently, or collaboratively, as has been the case with ISS. Other countries with developing space expertise (e.g. India) or niche space program (e.g. Japan or Canada) might also join in. To these, we might also add major corporate players, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Participants like SpaceX open up the interesting possibility of non-government entities actually making the trip on their own.
One obvious issue would be how to split the risks and rewards of such a monumental public-private venture, especially one that spans multiple national governments. Careful management would be required to ensure that the venture didn’t privatize the rewards, while keeping the risks firmly on the public side of the ledger. However, if that could be finessed, unleashing the power of the profit motive might well accelerate space exploration and development by orders of magnitude.
Fundamental Lunar Science
Basically, this means learning everything we can about the moon, much like we have learned about the Earth, via the sciences of geology and geophysics. Eventually, this would facilitate using the materials of the moon to construct the habitations and industrial structures that we build there.
Low g gravity
Much like the ISS, the environment of the moon is fundamentally different from the Earth, due to low gravity. Orbiting platforms allow us to experiment in free-fall, while a moon village will allow us to study low (one-sixth g) gravity up close, including its effects on human beings and the flora and fauna that we depend upon for survival.
Practical Lunar Engineering and Science
Obviously, there would be a lot to learn about day to day science and engineering as it relates to the lunar environment. We need to know what construction methods will work there, what transportation methods will work, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous environment, how that environment will affect everyday health, and so on.
Lunar Social Science
I would include economics here, as well as the psychological, sociological and political effects of colonizing the moon. Would the moon’s economy develop its own unique features? Could it develop a self-sustaining economy, or at least one that had a net positive balance of trade with the Earth (e.g. Helium 3 exports)? Would such an economy and culture tend towards competition or cooperation? How would a multi-national polity be governed, and how would that governing process evolve with time? What about demography? Would there ultimately be moon babies? If so, what nationality would they be? Would the moon village people develop their own unique cultural practices – literature, music, religion, low-g sports, and so forth?
The Lunar Village
The first question, of course, is where to build it? It seems obvious that access to key resources is essential. One of those would be water, so it would probably be sensible to locate somewhere that has minable water, which we now believe can be found in craters that are in constant shadow, near the poles. Access to regolith and minerals that could be used for construction material is another obvious factor in location. Existing lava tubes might provide a natural “partially constructed” habitation.
Should a market for helium 3 develop (contingent on development of fusion reactors), access to that resource would be important. A reliable energy source would also be vital – nuclear and solar both come to mind. Wind power is definitely out, as are fossil fuels.
The far side of the moon also has advantages, from the point of view of radio astronomy (shielded from Earth radio signals). Mind you, that could also present a problem for Earth-moon communications. So, perhaps a site near a pole, but also near the terminator (near side – far side boundary), would be a good compromise.
Naturally, as such a base grew from a small research station to an industrial park, the scale of the village and the number of activities performed there would grow. In addition to the initial basic science facilities, spaces needed for practical engineering work would increase. At some point, space would also have to be devoted to other “human needs”, such as food production, recreation and culture. The village would also likely be a central point, that could service other industrial sites (e.g. provide lab facilities and medical assistance), that would be in widely dispersed lunar locations.
Such a village/habitation would have to overcome many technical challenges to protect the inhabitants – extremes of temperature, near vacuum outside, solar and cosmic radiation, micrometeorites, low gravity, and annoying lunar dust, among other problems. There might also be some fundamental shortages of elements essential for life, that would have to be imported and replenished from Earth (e.g. nitrogen for fertilizer).
What might a moon village export? Besides basic knowledge and science of the moon and off-Earth living, it could provide Helium 3 to Earth based fusion reactors (a possible fuel for such devices that has been accumulating on the moon for eons – of course we still need to invent the reactors). Lunar natural resources might also be extracted and refined to provide propellant and materials for other space missions and locations - since the moon has a shallower gravity well than Earth, it might be a good base for deeper solar system exploration. Ironically, various “rare Earth” materials, needed for advanced electronics, lasers and the like, may well be more easily minable on the moon than the Earth. The novelty of the place might also earn money from tourism and lunar cultural activities.
Ultimately, these activities would have to earn enough money to become self-sustaining, as Earth governments and corporations would tire of “throwing money at the moon”. The scale of any lunar village would therefore be dependent on its economics – should there be reliable profits to be had, the sky (or the moon) is the limit. Otherwise, the project might never really get off the ground (or the Earth).
Though very much in the initial blue-sky (or moon-beam) stage, the idea of a Moon Village or Lunar Industrial Park is gaining some traction. This paper in Acta Astronautica is evidence of that. No doubt we will begin to hear more and more of the idea over the next few years, especially as the International Space Station reaches the end of it projected life, and people start casting around for a new challenge. Much will depend on whether the economics of such a project can eventually become self-sustaining. But, surprising breakthroughs are possible – a smaller scale example of that is the development of re-usable rockets by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. When smart, ambitious people put their minds (and our taxes) to something, you never know.
· B. Sherwood, Space architecture for MoonVillage, Acta Astronautica (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2017.07.019.
· Google Images
And now that you have read about some real cutting-edge science, you should think about reading some Science Fiction (because all work and no play can make you a dull person, or so they say). Here’s a novel that features a neutron star (and a pretty girl, who is also an engineer, among other characters). The second book in the series features a lunar near-catastrophe (technically on a different planet, but still...) and some science about Lagrange points:
The Witches' Stones, Book 1 - Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos
Young Earth woman and spaceship mechanic, Sarah Mackenzie, has unwittingly triggered a vast source of energy, the Witches' Stones, via her psychic abilities, of which she was unaware. She becomes the focal point of a desperate contest between the authoritarian galactic power, known as The Organization, and the democratic Earth-based galactic power, known as The Terran Confederation. The Organization wants to capture her, and utilize her powers to create a super-weapon; the Terra Confederation wants to prevent that at all costs. The mysterious psychic aliens, the Witches of Kordea also become involved, as they see her as a possible threat, or a possible ally, for the safety of their own world.
A small but fast scout-ship, with its pilot and an agent of the Terra Confederation, Coryn Leigh, are sent to rescue her from a distant planet at the very edge of the galaxy, near space claimed by The Organization. Battles, physical and mental, whirl around the young woman, as the agent and pilot strive at all costs to keep her from the clutches of the Organization.