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Building a Moon Base: Part 1 – Challenges and Hazards

The 1989 Inflatable Moon Base concept (credit: NASA)
So, we want to go to the Moon. Why? Because the Moon is an ideal “staging post” for us to accumulate materials and manpower outside of the Earth’s deep gravitational well. From the Moon we can send missions into deep space and ferry colonists to Mars. Tourists may also be interested in a short visit. Mining companies will no doubt want to set up camp there. The pursuit of science is also a major draw. For what ever reason, to maintain a presence on this small dusty satellite, we will need to build a Moon base. Be it for the short-term or long-term, man will need to colonize the Moon. But where would we live? How could we survive on this hostile landscape? This is where structural engineers will step in, to design, and build, the most extreme habitats ever conceived…

Manned missions to Mars take up a lot of the limelight insofar as colonization efforts are concerned, so it’s about time some focus is aimed at the ongoing and established concepts for colonization of the Moon. We currently have a means of getting there (after all, it is nearly 40 years ago since Apollo 11) and our technology is sufficiently advanced to sustain life in space, the next step is to begin building… In this first installment of “Building a Moon Base”, we look at the immediate issues facing engineers when planning habitats on a lunar landscape.

“Building a Moon Base” is based on research by Haym Benaroya and Leonhard Bernold (“Engineering of lunar bases”)

The debate still rages as to whether man should settle on the Moon or Mars first. Mars is often considered to be the ultimate challenge for mankind: to live on a planet other than Earth. But looking down on us during cloudless nights is the bright and attainable Moon. From here we can see the details of the lunar landscape with the naked eye, it is so close astronomically when compared with the planets, that many believe that the Moon should be our first port of call before we begin the six month (at best) voyage to the Red Planet. It also helps as we’ve already been there…
The Apollo 17 crew roving over the lunar landscape in 1972, the last manned mission to the Moon (Credit:NASA)
Opinion has shifted somewhat in recent years from the “Mars Direct” plan (in the mid-1990s) to the “Moon First” idea, and this shift has recently been highlighted by US President George W. Bush when in 2004 he set out plans for re-establishing a presence on the Moon before we can begin planning for Mars. It makes sense; many human physiological issues remain to be identified, plus the technology for colonization can only be tested to its full extent when… well… colonizing.

Understanding how the human body will adapt to life in low-G and how new technologies will perform in a location close enough to home will be not only be assuring to lunar colonists and astronauts, it will also be sensible. Exploring space is dangerous enough, minimizing the risk of mission failure will be critical to the future of manned exploration of the Solar System.

So where do you start when designing a moon base? High up on the structural engineers “to do” list would be the damage building materials may face when exposed to a vacuum. Damage from severe temperature variations, high velocity micrometeorite impacts, high outward forces from pressurized habitats, material brittleness at very low temperatures and cumulative abrasion by high energy cosmic rays and solar wind particles will all factor highly in the planning phase. Once all the hazards are outlined, work can begin on the structures themselves.

The Moon exerts a gravitational pull 1/6th that of the Earth, so engineers will be allowed to build less gravity-restricted structures. Also, local materials should be used where and when possible. The launch costs from Earth for building supplies would be astronomical, so building materials should be mined rather than imported. Lunar regolith (fine grains of pulverized Moon rock) for example can be used to cover parts of habitats to protect settlers from cancer-causing cosmic rays and provide insulation. According to studies, a regolith thickness of least 2.5 meters is required to protect the human body to a “safe” background level of radiation. High energy efficiency will also be required, so the designs must incorporate highly insulating materials to insure minimum loss of heat. Additional protection from meteorite impacts must be considered as the Moon has a near-zero atmosphere necessary to burn up incoming space debris. Perhaps underground dwellings would be a good idea?
An artists impression of a lunar explosion - caused by the impact of a meteorite (Credit: NASA)
The actual construction of a base will be very difficult in itself. Obviously, the low-G environment poses some difficulty to construction workers to get around, but the lack of an atmosphere would prove very damaging. Without the buffering of air around drilling tools, dynamic friction will be amplified during drilling tasks, generating huge amounts of heat. Drill bits and rock will fuse, hindering progress. Should demolition tasks need to be carried out, explosions in a vacuum would create countless high velocity missiles tearing through anything in their path, with no atmosphere to slow them down. (You wouldn’t want to be eating dinner in an inflatable habitat during mining activities should a rock fragment be flying your way…) Also, the ejected dust would obscure everything and settle, statically, on machinery and contaminate everything. Decontamination via air locks will not be efficient enough to remove all the dust from spacesuits, Moon dust would be ingested and breathed in – a health risk we will not fully comprehend until we are there.

“Building a Moon Base” is based on research by Haym Benaroya and Leonhard Bernold (“Engineering of lunar bases“)

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • www.actionforspace.com February 7, 2008, 7:32 AM

    I think that the biggest challenge is maintaining support and funding from politicians to see the development through.

  • Derek salinas February 7, 2008, 1:45 AM

    If you are really interested in a forward notion of more organizations and groups focused on lunar habitation and exploration then please see the PISCES project. It is a compilation project between Japan-U.S. Science, Technology & Space Applications Program (JUSTSAP), the Hawai’i State Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism (DBEDT), and the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. The latest conference was quite informative and there was a very large turnout from some folks at NASA/JPL and JAXA.

    http://pisces.hilo.hawaii.edu

  • pantzov February 7, 2008, 1:51 AM

    impacts from all different sized particles and rocks would be of huge concern. i honestly can’t imagine anything on the surface being safe long-term.

  • Steve R February 7, 2008, 3:36 AM

    .. underground seems best to me, an automated, unmanned, nuke powered, slow, mechanical mole could prepare a network of tunnels before man needs to set foot. for cooling, doesn’t fine dust act like a fluid, couldn’t that be an option – there seems to be plenty of it up there.

  • Laszlo February 7, 2008, 7:14 AM

    Start w air & temp. Is it efficient to extract breathable oxygen from regolith? Remember, it’s CO2 that stimulates breathing, so add that. What about the horrendous diurnal temp extremes, even mercury has a 1100 degree daily swing. With so little gravity, it’ll be difficult to maintain any sort of protective, breathable atmosphere. Mars would be too cold, a continuous energy drain to maintain, sim to lune. I’m for trying to restructure Venus’s atmos. At least we have something to work with, & energy source. Les

  • Peter K February 7, 2008, 12:02 PM

    Energy is the main thing. And finding the necessary ores for processing. I like the mole idea. Get the dust and the initial work out of the way before we even get there. Solar energy is the obvious answer for the moon. If the base were in a crater at the pole then it could avoid solar radiation and yet have solar panels just outside of the crater to collect energy. No one is suggesting terra-forming, Laszlo, all atmosphere would have to be interior. Working on Venus is not a twenty year project but a 2000 year project. We’re too impatient for that.

  • David Madison, Sr. February 8, 2008, 2:49 AM

    To build on the Moon, the main problem is not significant. You have to solve all problems before you start, or you do not start.

    It may be better to terraform Mars before trying for a lunar outpost. Mars has no atmosphere either, is cold also, and has no water like the Moon does not. Yet you could solve all three of these problems simultaneously with importing a large comet core. We do not have the technology to do that, yet, but that could change in a couple of centuries. After impact, Mars gets heat, air, and water nearly instantly. The air will eventually bleed off into space, but that billion-year timescale does not affect the human race.

  • John February 8, 2008, 4:01 AM

    JOHN — http://www.moonposter.ie (Moon News — http://www.moonposter.ie/news.htm)

    Transport and habitat designs for use on the lunar surface are very much way behind. NASA’s most favoured approach right now is to land as large a complete habitat as is possible on the surface (the Ares V’s 8.7 metres-diameter shroud would be capable of large-ish habitats); followed later with other complete habitats that could then be joined. These would then form the foundations for building a much larger base, possibly at Shackleton Crater near the South Pole, and all done within the constraints of the necessary lunar architecture — power supplies, living quarters, rovers…etc.
    Undoubtedly, their is a threat from exposed space — dangerous radiation and micrometeorites…etc., to this temporary arrangement — so an underground base is the likely option to reduce these risks. However, I think these plans would be very much down the long road direction.

  • John February 8, 2008, 1:17 PM

    To BrianC:

    Nice one Brian — those are neat observations and some lateral suggestions if ever I read them :-)
    Suggestion: Apply to NASA right now :-)

    John — http://www.moonposter.ie

  • BrianC February 8, 2008, 9:56 AM

    A thought occurred to me, after reading some of the above discussions regarding the 1/6 G environment, followed by others that talked habitat construction or dimensions:
    Whatever they plan for the habitat, they need to apply lunar-based human factors, meaning they must throw away the Earth-based 1-G paradigm. For example: where interior ceilings come into play. I’ve seen video clips of people walking inside a base mock-up showing off airlocks, beds and such. Then I’d look over their heads and notice that these folks are all walking around with a ceiling that is aprx 12 inches above a typical head. At first blush that looked acceptable get around in. But once in lunar gravity, people will not be able to walk like an Earthling. I foresee dented ceilings and multiple cases of concussions — unless you either train the crew to walk with extreme slowness or with a bent-over posture (that’ll do wonders to their spine), or issue everyone a hardhat… Or NASA (or whoever gets to design this) can make sure the habitat will have sufficient headroom to handle all the expected hopping.

  • jon February 22, 2008, 2:55 PM

    So, what exactly are the disadvantages with nuclear power on the moon? What are the disadvantages of solar?

  • Marcos Passarello September 27, 2008, 11:41 AM

    The design of mining machine to do the process
    that go to the moon, extract He3,
    come back to earth and in the middle of the way process the he3.

    I am working in a calculator for creating CVSS vulnerability
    severity scores. Base on CVSS standards guide to understand
    how to score CVSS vulnerabilities and to interpret CVSS scores.
    The scores are computed in sequence such that the Base Score is
    used to calculate the Temporal Score and the Temporal Score is
    used to calculate the Environmental Score.

    Availability of exploit
    (Exploitability)

    Type of fix available
    (RemediationLevel)

    Level of verification that vulnerability exists
    (ReportConfidence)

    Impact Metrics

    Confidentiality impact
    (ConfImpact)

    Integrity impact
    (IntegImpact)

    Availability impact
    (AvailImpact)

  • Nobody October 22, 2008, 1:49 PM

    Mining. Really? Significantly changing the mass ratio between the earth and the moon sounds like a perfectly great idea. No dangers there.

  • nick November 3, 2008, 9:12 PM

    people ,for god’s name we all know we must land as many ships on the moon and join them all up together .One ship for tunnels ,one ship for air ,one ship for water ,one ship for food , one ship for housing ,one for power , one factory ship , one ship for underground housing materials .Mars is just to big for us now ,stop wasting money and get the moon project done first .cheers

  • Vladimir Matic December 19, 2008, 2:57 PM

    Cooling machines used for mining could be made by using closed cooling systems. If water is to be used as a cooler, one part of the system should be kept outside of the drilled cavity where water would be cooled over the night. Therefore, most of the mining activity should be undertaken by night.

    One problem is how to deliver enough of water there, and how much would that cost. A good aspect is that once water is there it would be exposed to no loses, for the system is closed.

    One seems to be for sure: Any technical problems like these could be very well overcome by our engineers. Just do make the decision to go there for God’s sake. Even a part of the $700 billion bailout for banks would do the job.

    Vladimir, from Belgrade.

  • Tom December 25, 2008, 10:53 PM

    Small to medium vaccuum units in the airlock should be able to pull (most) of the dust off of the exo-suits while the air is being restored to normal pressure.

  • Tom December 25, 2008, 11:04 PM

    Re: David Madison- Yes Mars has an atmoshere, but it is too thin to breathe without a pressure suit. It’s like trying to breathe air at a very high altitude, but you’re at the surface.

  • ur mnomo February 2, 2009, 11:39 AM

    dfg

  • Brittany February 13, 2009, 2:48 AM

    This article is the best yet. I’ve been looking forever for an article just like this and here it is. You guys have done an awesoem job with this and I’d like to just say thank you.

  • Aqua March 4, 2009, 6:59 PM

    Story time: In 1984 I worked with a fellow who was interested in creating a compact unit using fresnel lenses for focusing solar energy onto a thermal collector for heating water to create steam for power generation. He’d become stiffled by the fact that he couldn’t find a suitable material that had a high enough melting point and also the ability to withstand the pressures he expected to encounter. He tried copper, it melted. He tried steel, it also melted. He tried graphite, it didn’t have the tensile strength he required. Eventually he abandoned the project. Visiting one day, I saw a stack of these lenses he’d purchased and later stored in his garage. These lenses were approx. 3′ X 5′ X 1/4″ thk, polycarbonate plates which were originally used in the manufacture of early large screen TV’s. I asked what he intended to do with them? He said that eventually he’d like to finish his project, in the mean time, would I want one to experiment with? I took the lens home and did just that. I started by taking the lens outside on a sunny day and focusing the beam it created on garden soil out in front of my apartment. I lived out in the country on a ranch in an area where the soil was mostly adobe clay. I was able to melt that soil fairly easily, in fact, I melted my name in the ground. The product was a black vitrified glass-like material. Very interesting… The Mexican gardener we had came across my experiment and very impressed. In fact thru an interpreter I learned he thought I was some sort of Brujo – witch? and henceforth stayed far away from me.

    My point: Vitrification of lunar soils may prove suitable not only for sealing dust at landing sites but also for sealing the walls of volcanic tubes, making them airtight and suitable for habitat(s).

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