Since the turn of the century, China has worked hard to become one of the fastest-rising powers in space. In 2003, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) began sending their first taikonauts to space with the Shenzou program. This was followed by the deployment of the Tiangong-1 space station in 2011 and the launch of Tiangong-2 in 2016. And in the coming years, China also has its sights set on the Moon.
But before China can conduct crewed lunar missions, they must first explore the surface to locate safe landing spots and resources. This is the purpose behind the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (aka. the Chang’e program). Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, this program made history yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 3rd) when the fourth vehicle to bear the name (Chang’e-4) landed on the far side of the Moon.
Between NASA, the Chinese National Space Agency, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, there’s no shortage of plans for returning to the Moon and creating a permanent base there. Naturally, these plans have given rise to questions of where such bases should be built. So far, the top contenders have been lava tubes that have been spotted in various locations across the surface of the Moon and in the polar regions.
Whereas the polar regions are permanently shaded and appear to have abundant ice water, stable lava tubes would offer protection against the elements and harmful radiation. However, according to a new discovery presented at NASA’s Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop, it appears that there is a location on the Moon that ticks off both boxes – a possible lava tube that is located in the norther polar region!
These pits were identified based on an analysis of imaging data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). These images indicated the presence of small pits in the northeastern floor of the Philolaus Crater, a 70 km (43 mi)-diameter impact crater located about 550 km (340 mi) from the Moon’s North Pole. These pits could potentially be “skylights”, holes in the surface that lead to subterranean recesses.
Each pit appears to be a rimless depression measuring roughly 15 to 30 meters (50 to 11 ft) across and have shadowed interiors. Moreover, the pits are located along winding channels known as “sinous rilles” that are present along the floor of the Philolaus Crater. On the moon, these channels are thought to be the result of subterranean lava tubes that have since collapsed, or partially collapsed.
If water ice is present in the region, then these skylights could allow future explorers access to subsurface water ice that is less tainted by regolith. This presents a number of opportunities for research, and future long-term missions to the lunar surface. As Pascal Lee explained:
“The highest resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 percent certainty, but we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting.”
In recent years, over 200 pits have been discovered by other researchers on the Moon, many of which were identified as possible skylights leading to underground lava tubes. However, this latest discovery is the first to place a possible skylight and lava tube within the Moon’s polar regions. These regions have become the focal point of research in recent years due to the fact that water ice is known to exist in the polar regions.
Within these permanently-shadowed cratered regions – particularly the South Pole-Aitken Basin – water ice is known to exist within the regolith. As a result, multiple proposals have been made to create lunar bases in the polar regions. However, there remains the challenge of how to get to that water (which would require drilling) and the fact that a permanently-shadowed region would not allow access to solar power.
This new discovery is therefore exciting for three reasons. For one, it would allow for much easier access to lunar polar ice that would be much more pure than anything drilled from the surface. Second, solar power would be available nearby, just outside each skylight. And third, these openings could provide access to a stable lava tube that contains water ice itself, much as lava tubes on Earth do.
Philolaus Crater also offers two additional bonuses when it comes a lunar settlement. Given that the crater formed in the Copernican Era (i.e. the last 1.1 billion years) it is relatively young as lunar craters go. As such, it would offer scientists with plenty of opportunities to study the Moon’s more recent geological history. Also, since the Philolaus Crater is on the near-side on the Moon, it would allow direct communications with Earth.
And as Lee added, a base in this location would also allow for some amazing views:
“We would also have a beautiful view of Earth. The Apollo landing sites were all near the Moon’s equator, such that the Earth was almost directly overhead for the astronauts. But from the Philolaus skylights, Earth would loom just over the crater’s mountainous rim, near the horizon to the southeast.”
Looking ahead, Lee and his colleagues indicate that further exploration is needed to verify whether or not these pits are lava tube skylights and whether or not they contain ice. In the future, astronauts and robots could be sent to the polar regions of the Moon in order to seek out and explore caves that have been identified from orbit. As Lee explained, this will have benefits that go far beyond lunar exploration.
“Exploring lava tubes on the Moon will also prepare us for the exploration of lava tubes on Mars,” he said. “There, we will face the prospect of expanding our search for life into the deeper underground of Mars where we might find environments that are warmer, wetter, and more sheltered than at the surface.”
And as Bill Diamond – president and CEO of the SETI Institute – explained, this discovery highlights the true nature of exploration, which goes well beyond orbiters and robotic explorers:
“This discovery is exciting and timely as we prepare to return to the Moon with humans. It also reminds us that our exploration of planetary worlds is not limited to their surface, and must extend into their mysterious interiors”.
The Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop was convened by the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The purpose of the workshop was to examine the range of scientific investigations that could be conducted on the Moon, including in-situ science, network science and sample return missions.
Last December the Golden Spike Company announced its plans to enable private-sector lunar exploration missions which would be feasible, profitable, and possible — even without government funding. Comprised of veteran space program executives, managers, and engineers, Golden Spike intends to stand on the shoulders of current space technology to develop lunar transportation systems that can be used by agencies and private interests worldwide to get humans back to the Moon… but they still need your help getting the word out.
“We’re running an Indiegogo campaign as an experiment in public outreach and interest in human lunar expeditions,” Golden Spike CEO and planetary scientist Alan Stern explained to Universe Today in an email.
Recently Golden Spike started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with the goal of raising $240,000 for international outreach (that’s a dollar for every mile to the Moon!) but, with only 16 10 days left in the campaign, only $9,400 $12,134 has been contributed.* While dollar-for-mile that’s still farther than any humans have traveled into space since Apollo, it’s unfortunately quite short of their goal.
CEO and famed planetary scientist Alan Stern blames himself.
“Simply put, we didn’t put the right people and resources on this Indiegogo campaign,” Stern wrote in an announcement on the Indiegogo site on April 9.
But despite the small amount of time remaining, he’s not giving up.
“We’re going to take advantage of the press of time left — just 16 days — to reach out to the broader public about people they can be a part of a historic new era of human lunar exploration,” Stern writes.
“To do that, you’ll be seeing Golden Spike in the press quite a bit more the next two weeks.”
And he’s asking for your continued help to not just contribute, but also to get the word out.
“Speak to friends and colleagues. Message on sites like Twitter and Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. Send emails. Heck, put up signs and hand out flyers! We’re in the final phases of this campaign, ask people to join in. Let them know why you joined. Tell them their participation will make a huge difference… If we do this right, we can succeed.”
While contributions to the Golden Spike campaign won’t be used to launch rockets or build Moon bases, they will be used to reach out to potential international partners and show them that people are indeed interested in getting people back to the Moon… proven by the fact that they’ll even put some of their own money into the venture.
Small donations, large donations… each contribution no matter the size shows that people will invest in a future of lunar exploration. Put some “skin in the game,” if you will.
Click here to contribute to the Golden Spike campaign.And even if you can’t contribute financially, help get the word out. Share this article, tell people about the campaign, let them know that our future on the Moon doesn’t have to rely on fickle government funding or be subject to catastrophic budget cuts.
We got there before, we can get there again. The Moon awaits.
“Make the point that 40-plus years of waiting for governments to do this for us showed that the people who want humans to explore the Moon have to take personal action if we want it.”
– Alan Stern, planetary scientist and Golden Spike Company CEO
PS: Be sure to email [email protected] when you donate to the campaign and let them know your name, city, and state, and who referred you to donate (in this case, Universe Today.) They’re giving prizes for the top US state, top country, and top referrals!
Last December, when a private space exploration company named Golden Spike announced they are working to offer human expeditions to the Moon by 2020, they also said wanted to bring public along as an integral part of the company’s mission. Since their initial announcement, the Golden Spike team says they’ve been inundated with emails, letters and social media posts from people wanting to know how to take part, and how they could help speed the development of human lunar expeditions.
Today, The Golden Spike Company — which hopes to generate sustainable human lunar exploration with a series of commercial expeditions for nations, corporations, and individuals — began a 10-week Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to enable a “participatory exploration program.” This isn’t funding the building of rockets and spaceships directly, but does allow the public to help the company accelerate their efforts.
“The funds will enable us to launch our participatory exploration program, which is more than just the perks people get for making a donation,” said Golden Spike President and CEO Dr. Alan Stern in an email to Universe Today. “It involves apps, membership, media productions, and more, and that effort is intended to become self-sustaining after we jump-start it with Indiegogo.”
Stern said funds from the Indiegogo campaign will also be used for other activities in Golden Spike.
“We’re building a program that is about connecting people to lunar exploration,” he said, “and when we had people keep telling us they want to help fund us to help get us to the Moon, we’re really excited about that. But while our major funding will, of course come from sales and investment, this gives people a sense of participation too.”
The company is looking to raise $240,000 – a dollar for every mile from the Earth to the Moon.
“The drive aims to raise awareness about Golden Spike, accelerate Golden Spike’s plans for innovative public participation in its activities, and give the global community of space enthusiasts and the general public a chance to help fuel Golden Spike’s human Lunar exploration mission,” says the Golden Spike team on their Indiegogo page.
“We hope that this campaign and all the projects it enables will generate a degree of participation in space exploration that has never existed before” said Gerry Griffin, former Apollo Flight Director and the Chairman of Golden Spike’s Board of Directors.
Those participating in the crowdfunding campaign will become Golden Spike ‘insiders,’ with an Olympics Movement-style membership program for children and adults. “We want to make it possible for people to follow Golden Spike’s development and space missions just like people follow Hollywood, NASCAR, and professional sports,” said Stern.
Some of the perks of donating include receiving reconnaissance images of potential landing sites, having the chance to vote on where missions should land on the Moon, and having your name and a short message left on the Moon. Big donors would receive trips to launches of missions to the Moon.
But to get the Moon yourself via Golden Spike, you’ll have to foot the $1.5 billion price tag for a two-person lunar mission.
The Golden Spike Company was started by a group of former NASA engineers and spaceflight experts, looks to provide services such as vehicles, mission planning, mission ops, and crew training to create a reliable and affordable lunar exploration system that will be U.S. based
Stern said they will not build new hardware but adapt crew capsules already in development and use existing infrastructure and launchers. However, they are looking to developing their own lunar spacesuits and lunar landers.
Their tentative plan is to use a series of launches where the first launch sends a lunar lander to orbit the Moon and a second launch brings the crew, which will then dock with the lander and head to the Moon.
Stern said their costs per flight are not much higher than some recent robotic lunar missions that have been flown and they will offset their costs with spaceship naming rights, media rights, and other enticements. They already have companies involved, such as United Launch Alliance, Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and have brought several investors on board.
Golden Spike’s website