Astronauts will face a host of obstacles when they visit the Moon again. There’s powerful radiation, wild temperature swings, and challenging gravity to deal with. There’s also dust and lots of it. Moondust was a hazard for the Apollo astronauts, and future lunar astronauts will have to contend with it, too.
What if they turn some of that dust into solid surfaces to drive on?
Between now and the mid-2030s, multiple space agencies hope to send crewed missions to the Moon. of These plans all involve establishing bases around the Moon’s southern polar region, including the Artemis Base Camp and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). These facilities will enable a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development,” according to the NASA Artemis Program mission statement. In all cases, plans for building facilities on the surface call for a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), where local resources are used as building materials.
This presents a bit of a problem since not all lunar soil (regolith) is well-suited for construction. Much like engineering and construction projects here on Earth, builders need to know what type of soil they are building on and if it can be used to make concrete. In a recent study, planetary scientist Kevin M. Cannon proposed a lunar soil classification scheme for space resource utilization. This could have significant implications for future missions to the Moon, where it would help inform the construction of bases, habitats, and other facilities based on soil type and location.
Lunar regolith (aka. Moondust”) is a major hazard for missions heading to the Moon. It’s everywhere on the surface – 5 to 10 meters (~16.5 to 33 feet) in depth in some places – not to mention jagged and sticky! During the Apollo missions, astronauts learned how this dust adhered to everything, including their spacesuits. Worse, it would get tracked back into their Lunar Modules (LMs), where it stuck to surfaces and played havoc with electronics and mechanical equipment, and even led to long-term respiratory problems.
This is a major concern for the Artemis Program, which aims to establish a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” One of the key elements of this program is the Lunar Gateway, a lunar habitat that will orbit the Moon for a planned 15 years and facilitate long-term missions to the surface. The impact that regolith introduced by astronauts returning from the surface will have is not well understood. In a recent paper, a NASA-led team of researchers created a physics-based model to asses how regolith could impact the habitat over time.
Multiple missions are destined for the Moon in this decade. These include robotic and crewed missions conducted by space agencies, commercial space entities, and non-profit organizations. The risks and hazards of going to the Moon are well-documented, thanks to Apollo Program and the six crewed missions it sent to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. But unlike the “footprints and flags” of yesterday, the plan for the coming decade is to create a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.”
This means establishing a greater presence on the Moon, building infrastructure (like habitats, power systems, and landing pads), and missions regularly coming and going. Given the low-gravity environment on the Moon, spacecraft kick up a lot of lunar regolith (aka., “Moon dust”) during takeoff and landing. This regolith is electrostatically-charged, very abrasive, and wreaks havoc on machines and equipment. In a recent study, NASA researchers Philip T. Metzger and James G. Mantovani considered how much damage all this regolith could inflict on orbiting spacecraft.
One of the most iconic events in history is Apollo 11 landing on the lunar surface. During the descent, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin are heard relaying commands and data back and forth to mission control across 385,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) of outer space as the lunar module “Eagle” slowly inched its way into the history books.
In the final moments before touchdown, Aldrin can be heard saying, “Picking up some dust”, followed by large dust clouds shooting outward from underneath from the spacecraft as the exhaust plumes interacted with the lunar surface, more commonly known as brownout or brownout effect. This significantly reduced the visibility for Armstrong and Aldrin as they landed, and while they successfully touched down on the Moon, future astronauts might not be so lucky.
Challenges have been a mainstay of space exploration for several years at this point. In the past, they have ranged from making a potential space elevator to designing a solar power system on the Moon. The European Space Agency is continuing that tradition and has recently released a new challenge focusing on lunar resources. Called the Identifying Challenges along the Lunar ISRU Value Chain campaign, this new ESA platform is the next step in the agency’s efforts to develop an entire “value chain” of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies.
Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to send the first astronauts to the Moon in over fifty years. Before the decade is over, this program aims to establish the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” The European Space Agency (ESA) also has big plans, which include the creation of a Moon Village that will serve as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS). China and Roscosmos also came together in June 2021 to announce that they would build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the lunar south pole.
In all cases, space agencies plan to harvest local resources to meet their construction and long-term needs – a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Based on samples returned by the fifth mission of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-5), a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) identified indigenous glass fibers for the first time. According to a paper they authored, these fibers were formed by past impacts in the region and could be an ideal building material for future lunar bases.
No matter where we go in the universe, we’re going to need water. Thus far, human missions to Earth orbit and the Moon have taken water with them. But while that works for short missions, it isn’t practical in the long term. Water is heavy, and it would take far too much fuel to bring sufficient water to sustain long-term bases on the Moon or Mars. So we’ll have to use the water we can extract locally.
An astronaut’s gotta eat, right? Especially if they are on a long-duration mission to places like the Moon. Scientists have been looking into how the lunar regolith could possibly support growing food for humans, as growing plants for food and oxygen will be critical for future long-term lunar missions.
One company has been diligently researching this concept and they say there’s good news.
Alongside nuclear war or a massive impact from an asteroid, anthropogenic climate change is one of the greatest existential threats facing humanity today. With the rise in greenhouse gas emissions through the 20th century, Earth’s atmosphere continues to absorb more of the Sun’s energy. This has led to rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and increased drought, famine, wildfires, and other ecological consequences. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global temperatures will increase by an average of 1.5 to 2 °C (2.7 to 3.6 °F) by 2050.
For some parts of the world, the temperature increases will be manageable with the right adaptation and mitigation strategies. For others, especially in the equatorial regions (where most of Earth’s population lives), the temperature increases will be severe and will make life untenable for millions of people. For decades, scientists have considered using a sunshield to block a fraction of the Sun’s energy (1 to 2%) before it reaches Earth’s atmosphere. According to a new study by a team led by the University of Utah, lunar dust could be used to shield Earth from sunlight.