When it comes right down to it, the Moon is a pretty hostile environment. It’s extremely cold, covered in electrostatically-charged dust that clings to everything (and could cause respiratory problems if inhaled), and its surface is constantly bombarded by radiation and the occasional meteor. And yet, the Moon also has a lot going for it as far as establishing a human presence there is concerned.
In the coming decades, many space agencies hope to conduct crewed missions to the Moon and even establish outposts there. In fact, between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, and the Indian and Chinese space agencies, there are no shortages of plans to construct lunar bases and settlements. These will not only establish a human presence on the Moon, but facilitate missions to Mars and deeper into space.
For instance, the ESA is planning on building an “international lunar village” on the Moon by the 2030s. As the spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS), this village would also allow for scientific research in a lunar environment. Currently, European researchers are planning how to go about constructing this village, which includes conducting experiments with lunar dust simulants to create bricks.
To put it simply, the entire surface of the Moon is covered in dust (aka. regolith) that is composed of fine particles of rough silicate. This dust was formed over the course of billions of years by constant meteorite impacts which pounded the silicate mantle into fine particles. It has remained in a rough and fine state due to the fact that the lunar surface experiences no weathering or erosion (due to the lack of an atmosphere and liquid water).
Because it is so plentiful, reaching depths of 4-5 meters (13-16.5 feet) in some places – and up to 15 meters (49 feet) in the older highland areas – regolith is considered by many space agencies to be the building material of choice for lunar settlements. As Aidan Cowley, the ESA’s science advisor and an expert when it comes to lunar soil, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“Moon bricks will be made of dust. You can create solid blocks out of it to build roads and launch pads, or habitats that protect your astronauts from the harsh lunar environment.”
In addition to taking advantage of a seemingly inexhaustible local resource, the ESA’s plans to use lunar regolith to create this base and related infrastructure demonstrates their commitment to in-situ resource utilization. Basically, bases on the Moon, Mars, and other locations in the Solar System will need to be as self-sufficient as possible to reduce reliance on Earth for regular shipments of supplies – which would both expensive and resource-exhaustive.
To test how lunar regolith would fare as a building material, ESA scientists have been using Moon dust simulants harvested right here on Earth. As Aiden explained, regolith on both Earth and the Moon are the product of volcanism and are basically basaltic material made up of silicates. “The Moon and Earth share a common geological history,” he said, “and it is not difficult to find material similar to that found on the Moon in the remnants of lava flows.”
The simulant were harvested from the region around Cologne, Germany, that were volcanically active about 45 million years ago. Using volcanic powder from these ancient lava flows, which was determined to be a good match for lunar dust, researchers from the European Astronaut Center (EAC) began using the powder (which they’ve named EAC-1) to fashioning prototypes of the bricks that would be used to created the lunar village.
Spaceship EAC, an ESA initiative designed to tackle the challenges of crewed spaceflight, is also working with EAC-1 to develop the technologies and concepts that will be needed to create a lunar outpost and for future missions to the Moon. One of their projects centers on how to use the oxygen in lunar dust (which accounts for 40% of it) to help astronauts have extended stays on the Moon.
But before the ESA can sign off on lunar dust as a building material, a number of tests still need to be conducted. These include recreating the behavior of lunar dust in a radiation environment to simulate their electrostatic behavior. For decades, scientists have known that lunar dust is electrically-charged because of the way it is constantly bombarded by solar and cosmic radiation.
This is what causes it to lift off the surface and cling to anything it touches (which the Apollo 11 astronauts noticed upon returning to the Lunar Module). As Erin Transfield – a member of ESA’s lunar dust topical team – indicated, scientists still do not fully understand lunar dust’s electrostatic nature, which could pose a problem when it comes to using it as a building material.
What’s more, the radiation-environment experiments have not produced any conclusive results yet. As a biologist who dreams of being the first woman on the Moon, Transfield indicated that more research is necessary using actual lunar dust. “This gives us one more reason to go back to the Moon,” she said. “We need pristine samples from the surface exposed to the radiation environment.”
Beyond establishing a human presence on the Moon and allowing for deep-space missions, the construction of the ESA’s proposed lunar village would also offer opportunities to leverage new technologies and forge partnerships between the public and private sector. For instance, the ESA has collaborated with the architectural design firm Foster + Partners to come up with the design for their lunar village, and other private companies have been recruited to help investigate other aspects of building it.
At present, the ESA plans to build their international lunar village in southern polar region, where plentiful water ice has been discovered. To investigate this, the ESA will be sending their Package for Resource Observation and in-Situ Prospecting for Exploration, Commercial exploitation and Transportation (PROSPECT) mission to the Moon in 2020, which will be travelling as part of the Russian Luna-27 mission.
This mission, a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos, will involve a Russian-built lander setting down in the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, where the PROSPECT probe will deploy and drill into the surface to retrieve samples of ice. Going forward, the ESA’s long-term plans also call for a series of missions to the Moon beginning in the 2020s that would involve robot workers paving the way for human explorers to land later.
In the coming decades, the intentions of the world’s leading space agencies are clear – not only are we going back to the Moon, but we intend to stay there! To that end, considerable resources are being dedicated towards researching and developing the necessary technologies and concepts needed to make this happen. By the 2030s, we might just see astronauts (and even private citizens) coming and going from the Moon with regular frequency.
And be sure to check out this video about the EAC’s efforts to study lunar regolith, courtesy of the ESA:
Further Reading: ESA
It would be no exaggeration to say that we live in an age of renewed space exploration. In particular, the Moon has become the focal point of increasing attention in recent years. In addition to President Trump’s recent directive to NASA to return to the Moon, many other space agencies and private aerospace companies are planning their own missions to the lunar surface.
A good example is the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), otherwise known as the Chang’e Program. Named in honor of the ancient Chinese lunar goddess, this program has sent two orbiters and one lander to the Moon already. And later this year, the Chang’e 4 mission will begin departing for the far side of the Moon, where it will study the local geology and test the effects of lunar gravity on insects and plants.
The mission will consist of a relay orbiter being launched aboard a Long March 5 rocket in June of 2018. This relay will assume orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange Point, followed by the launch of the lander and rover about six months later. In addition to an advanced suite of instruments for studying the lunar surface, the lander will also be carrying an aluminum alloy container filled with seeds and insects.
As Zhang Yuanxun – chief designer of the container – told the Chongqing Morning Post (according to China Daily):
“The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon. The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can establish a simple ecosystem on the Moon.”
The mission will also be the first time that a mission is sent to an unexplored region on the far side of the Moon. This region is none other than the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a vast impact region in the southern hemisphere. Measuring roughly 2,500 km (1,600 mi) in diameter and 13 kilometers (8.1 mi) deep, it is the single-largest impact basin on the Moon and one of the largest in the Solar System.
This basin is also source of great interest to scientists, and not just because of its size. In recent years, it has been discovered that the region also contains vast amounts of water ice. These are thought to be the results of impacts by meteors and asteroids which left water ice that survived because of how the region is permanently shadowed. Without direct sunlight, water ice in these craters has not been subject to sublimation and chemical dissociation.
Since the 1960s, several missions have explored this region from orbit, including the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and India’s Chandrayaan-1 orbiter. This last mission (which was mounted in 2008) also involved sending the Moon Impact Probe to the surface to trigger the release of material, which was then analyzed by the orbiter.
The mission confirmed the presence of water ice in the Aitken Crater, a discovery which was confirmed about a year later by NASA’s LRO. Thanks to this discovery, there have been several in the space exploration community who have stated that the South Pole-Aitken Basin would be the ideal location for a lunar base. In this respect, the Chang’e 4 mission is investigating the very possibility of humans living and working on the Moon.
Aside from telling us more about the local terrain, it will also assess whether or not terrestrial organisms can grow and thrive in lunar gravity – which is about 16% that of Earths (or 0.1654 g). Previous studies conducted aboard the ISS have shown that long-term exposure to microgravity can have considerable health effects, but little is known about the long-term effects of lower gravity.
The European Space Agency has also been vocal about the possibility of building an International Lunar Village in the southern polar region by the 2030s. Intrinsic to this is the proposed Lunar Polar Sample Return mission, a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos that will involve sending a robotic probe to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin by 2020 to retrieve samples of ice.
In the past, NASA has also discussed ideas for building a lunar base in the southern polar region. Back in 2014, NASA scientists met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis (creator of the X Prize Foundation) and other parties to discuss low-cost options. According to the papers that resulted from the meeting, this base would exist at one of the poles and would be modeled on the U.S. Antarctic Station at the South Pole.
If all goes well for the Chang’e 4 mission, China intends to follow it up with more robotic missions, and an attempted crewed mission in about 15 years. There has also been talk about including a radio telescope as part of the mission. This RF instrument would be deployed to the far side of the Moon where it would be undistributed by radio signals coming from Earth (which is a common headache when it comes to radio astronomy).
And depending on what the mission can tell us about the South Pole-Aitken Basin (i.e. whether the water ice is plentiful and the radiation tolerable), it is possible that space agencies will be sending more missions there in the coming years. Some of them might even be carrying robots and building materials!
In recent years, multiple space agencies have shared their plans to return astronauts to the Moon, not to mention establishing an outpost there. Beyond NASA’s plan to revitalize lunar exploration, the European Space Agency (ESA), Rocosmos, and the Chinese and Indian federal space agencies have also announced plans for crewed missions to the Moon that could result in permanent settlements.
As with all things in this new age of space exploration, collaboration appears to be the key to making things happen. This certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the ESA’s respective plans for lunar exploration. As spokespeople from both agencies announced this week, the CNSA and the ESA hope to work together to create a “Moon Village” by the 2020s.
The announcement first came from the Secretary General of the Chinese space agency (Tian Yulong). On earlier today (Wednesday, April 26th) it was confirmed by the head of media relations for the ESA (Pal A. Hvistendahl). As Hvistendahl was quoted as saying by the Associated Press:
“The Chinese have a very ambitious moon program already in place. Space has changed since the space race of the ’60s. We recognize that to explore space for peaceful purposes, we do international cooperation.”
Yulong and Hvistendahl indicated that this base would aid in the development of lunar mining, space tourism, and facilitate missions deeper into space – particularly to Mars. It would also build upon recent accomplishments by both agencies, which have successfully deployed robotic orbiters and landers to the Moon in the past few decades. These include the CNSA’s Chang’e missions, as well as the ESA’s SMART-1 mission.
As part of the Chang’e program, the Chinese landers explored the lunar surface in part to investigate the prospect of mining Helium-3, which could be used to power fusion reactors here on Earth. Similarly, the SMART-1 mission created detailed maps of the northern polar region of the Moon. By charting the geography and illumination of the lunar north pole, the probe helped to identify possible base sites where water ice could be harvested.
While no other details of this proposed village have been released just yet, it is likely that the plan will build on the vision expressed by ESA director Jan Woerner back in December of 2015. While attending the “Moon 2020-2030 – A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration” symposium, Woerner expressed his agency’s desire to create an international lunar base as a successor to the International Space Station.
In addition, its is likely that the construction of this base will rely on additive manufacture (aka. 3-d printing) techniques specially developed for the lunar environment. In 2013, the ESA announced that they had teamed up with renowned architects Foster+Partners to test the feasibility of using lunar soil to print walls that would protect lunar domes from harmful radiation and micrometeorites.
This agreement could signal a new era for the CNSA, which has enjoyed little in the way of cooperation with other federal space agencies in the past. Due to the agency’s strong military connections, the U.S. government passed legislation in 2011 that barred the CSNA from participating in the International Space Station. But an agreement between the ESA and China could open the way for a three-party collaboration involving NASA.
The ESA, NASA and Roscosmos also entered into talks back in 2012 about the possibility of creating a lunar base together. Assuming that all four nations can agree on a framework, any future Moon Village could involve astronauts from all the world’s largest space agencies. Such a outpost, where research could be conducted on the long-term effects of exposure to low-g and extra-terrestrial environments, would be invaluable to space exploration.
In the meantime, the CNSA hopes to launch a sample-return mission to the Moon by the end of 2017 – Chang’e 5 – and to send the Chang’e 4 mission (whose launch was delayed in 2015) to the far side of the Moon by 2018. For its part, the ESA hopes to conduct a mission analysis on samples brought back by Chang’e 5, and also wants to send a European astronaut to Tiangong-2 (which just conducted its first automated cargo delivery) at some future date.
As has been said countless times since the end of the Apollo Era – “We’re going back to the Moon. And this time, we intend to stay!”
Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
NASA Astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay organized an August 2014 workshop to discuss the future of a permanent moon base, and the ultimate goal of establishing a human settlement on Mars. The resultant nine papers have been recently published in a special issue of the journal New Space.
Their stories this week:
LISA Pathfinder Exceeds Expectations
We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
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Welcome back to our ongoing series, “The Definitive Guide To Terraforming”! We continue with a look at the Moon, discussing how it could one day be made suitable for human habitation.
Ever since the beginning of the Space Age, scientists and futurists have explored the idea of transforming other worlds to meet human needs. Known as terraforming, this process calls for the use of environmental engineering techniques to alter a planet or moon’s temperature, atmosphere, topography or ecology (or all of the above) in order to make it more “Earth-like”. As Earth’s closest celestial body, the Moon has long been considered a potential site.
All told, colonizing and/or terraforming the Moon would be comparatively easy compared to other bodies. Due to its proximity, the time it would take to transport people and equipment to and from the surface would be significantly reduced, as would the costs of doing so. In addition, it’s proximity means that extracted resources and products manufactured on the Moon could be shuttled to Earth in much less time, and a tourist industry would also be feasible.
Returning to the Moon has been the fevered dream of many scientists and astronauts. Ever since the Apollo Program culminated with the first astronauts setting foot on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, we have been looking for ways to go back to the Moon… and to stay there. In that time, multiple proposals have been drafted and considered. But in every case, these plans failed, despite the brave words and bold pledges made.
However, in a workshop that took place in August of 2014, representatives from NASA met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis from the X Prize Foundation and other parties invested in space exploration to discuss low-cost options for returning to the Moon. The papers, which were recently made available in a special issue of New Space, describe how a settlement could be built on the Moon by 2022, and for the comparatively low cost of $10 billion.
With all the talk about manned missions to Mars by the 2030s, its easy to overlook another major proposal for the next great leap. In recent years, the European Space Agency has been quite vocal about its plan to go back to the Moon by the 2020s. More importantly, they have spoken often about their plans to construct a moon base, one which would serve as a staging platform for future missions to Mars and beyond.
These plans were detailed at a recent international symposium that took place on Dec. 15th at the the European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, Netherlands. During the symposium, which was titled “Moon 2020-2030 – A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration”, the new Director General of the ESA – Jan Woerner – articulated his agency’s vision.
The purpose of the symposium – which saw 200 scientists and experts coming together to discuss plans and missions for the next decade – was to outline common goals for lunar exploration, and draft methods on how these can be achieved cooperatively. Intrinsic to this was the International Space Exploration Coordinated Group‘s (ISECG) Global Exploration Roadmap, an agenda for space exploration that was drafted by the group’s 14 members – which includes NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, and other federal agencies.
This roadmap not only lays out the strategic significance of the Moon as a global space exploration endeavor, but also calls for a shared international vision on how to go about exploring the Moon and using it as a stepping stone for future goals. When it came time to discuss how the ESA might contribute to this shared vision, Woerner outlined his agency’s plan to establish an international lunar base.
In the past, Woerner has expressed his interest in a base on the Moon that would act as a sort of successor to the International Space Station. Looking ahead, he envisions how an international community would live and perform research in this environment, which would be constructed using robotic workers, 3D printing techniques, and in-situ resources utilization.
The construction of such a base would also offer opportunities to leverage new technologies and forge lucrative partnerships between federal space agencies and private companies. Already, the ESA has collaborated with the architectural design firm Foster + Partners to come up with the plan for their lunar village, and other private companies have also been recruited to help investigate other aspects of building it.
Going forward, the plan calls for a series of manned missions to the Moon beginning in the 2020s, which would involve robot workers paving the way for human explorers to land later. These robots would likely be controlled through telepresence, and would combine lunar regolith with magnesium oxide and a binding salt to print out the shield walls of the habitat.
At present, the plan is for the base to be built in southern polar region, which exists in a near-state of perpetual twilight. Whether or not this will serve as a suitable location will be the subject of the upcoming Lunar Polar Sample Return mission – a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos that will involve sending a robotic probe to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin by 2020 to retrieve samples of ice.
This mission follows in the footsteps of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which showed that the Shakleton crater – located in the Moon’s southern polar region – has an abundant supply of water ice. This could not only be used to provide the Moon base with a source of drinking water, but could also be converted into hydrogen to refuel spacecraft on their way to and from Earth.
As Woerner was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail during the course of the symposium, this lunar base would provide the opportunity for scientists from many different nations to live and work together:
The future of space travel needs a new vision. Right now we have the Space Station as a common international project, but it won’t last forever. If I say Moon Village, it does not mean single houses, a church, a town hall and so on… My idea only deals with the core of the concept of a village: people working and living together in the same place. And this place would be on the Moon. In the Moon Village we would like to combine the capabilities of different spacefaring nations, with the help of robots and astronauts. The participants can work in different fields, perhaps they will conduct pure science and perhaps there will even be business ventures like mining or tourism.
Naturally, the benefits would go beyond scientific research and international cooperation. As NexGen Space LLC (a consultant company for NASA) recently stated, such a base would be a major stepping stone on the way to Mars. In fact, the company estimated that if such a base included refueling stations, it could cut the cost of any future Mars missions by about $10 billion a year.
And of course, a lunar base would also yield valuable scientific data that would come in handy for future missions. Located far from Earth’s protective magnetic field, astronauts on the Moon (and in circumpolar obit) would be subjected to levels of cosmic radiation that astronauts in orbit around Earth (i.e. aboard the ISS) are not. This data will prove immeasurably useful when plotting upcoming missions to Mars or into deep space.
An additional benefit is the possibility of creating an international presence on the Moon that would ensure that the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty endures. Signed back in 1966 at the height of the “Moon Race”, this treaty stated that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”
In other words, the treaty was meant to ensure that no nation or space agency could claim anything in space, and that issues of territorial sovereignty would not extend to the celestial sphere. But with multiple agencies discussing plans to build bases on the Moon – including NASA, Roscosmos, and JAXA – it is possible that issues of “Moon sovereignty” might emerge at some point in the future.
And having a base that could facilitate regular trips to the Moon would also be a boon for the burgeoning space tourism industry. Beyond offering trips into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) aboard Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson has also talked about the possibility of offering trips to the Moon by 2043. Golden Spike, another space tourism company, also hopes to offer round-trip lunar adventures someday (at a reported $750 million a pop).
Other private space ventures that are looking to make the Moon a tourist destination include Space Adventures and Excalibur Almaz – both of which are hoping to offer lunar fly-bys (no Moon walks, sorry) for $150 million apiece someday. Many analysts predict that in the coming decade, this industry will begin to (no pun intended) take flight. As such, establishing infrastructure there ahead of time would certainly be beneficial.
“We’re going back to the Moon”. That appeared to be central the message behind the recent symposium and the ESA’s plans for future space exploration. And this time, it seems, we will be staying there! And from there, who knows? The Universe is a big place…
Further Reading: European Space Agency
It’s long been a dream to have a human settlement on the Moon, but in this age of budget cuts and indecisive plans for NASA’s future, a Moon base may seem too costly and beyond our reach. However, noted lunar scientist Dr. Paul Spudis from the Lunar and Planetary Institute and a colleague, Tony Lavoie from the Marshall Space Flight Center, have come up with a plan for building a lunar settlement that is not only affordable but sustainable. It creates a Moon base along with a type of ‘transcontinental railroad’ in space which opens up cislunar space – the area between Earth and the Moon – for development.
“The ultimate goal in space is to be able to go anywhere, anytime with as much capability as we need,” Spudis told Universe Today. “This plan uses a robotic and human presence on the Moon to use the local resources to create a new spacefaring system. The key for doing this is to adopt a flexible approach that is incremental and cumulative.”
In a nutshell what Spudis proposes is to send robots to the Moon which are tele-operated from Earth to start extracting water from the polar deposits to create propellant. The propellant would be used to fuel a reusable space transportation system between the Earth and the Moon.
“The reason this is possible is because the Moon is close – it’s only three light-seconds round trip for radio signal get from Earth to the Moon back,” Spudis said, “which means you can control machines remotely with operators on the Earth actually doing the activities that an astronaut might do on the Moon.”
The advantage here is that a large part of the needed infrastructure, such as the mining operation, the processing plants, the development of storage for the water and propellant, is created before people even arrive.
“So what we try to do is to develop an architecture that enables us to, first, do this in small, incremental steps, with each step building upon the next, and the net effect is cumulative over time,”Spudis said. “And finally we are able to bring people to the Moon when we’re ready to actually have them live there. We place an outpost — a habitat — that will be fully operational before the first humans arrive.”
The significant amount of water than has been found on the Moon at the poles makes this plan work.
“We estimate there are many tens of billions of tons of water at both poles,” Spudis said. “What we don’t know in detail is exactly how much water is distributed what physical state it is in, and that’s one of the reasons why the first step in our plan is to send robotic prospectors up there to map the deposits and see how they vary.”
Water is an important resource for humans in space: it supports life for drinking and cooking, it can be broken down into oxygen for breathing, and by combing the oxygen and hydrogen in a fuel cell, electricity can be generated. Water is also a very good shielding material that could protect people from cosmic radiation, so the habitat could be “jacketed” with water.
But the most important use of water is being able to create a powerful chemical rocket propellant by using the oxygen and hydrogen and freezing them into a liquid.
“The Moon offers us this water not only to support human life there, but also to make rocket propellant to allow us to refuel our spacecraft both on the Moon and space above the Moon.”
In a series of 17 incremental missions, a human base would be built, made operational and occupied. It starts with setting up communication and navigation satellites around the Moon to enable precision operation for the robotic systems.
Next would sending rover to the Moon, perhaps a variant of the MER rovers that are currently exploring Mars, to prospect the best places for water at the lunar poles. The poles also provide areas of permanent sunlight to generate electrical power.
Next, larger equipment would be sent to experiment with digging up the ice deposits, melting the ice and storing the products. (See our previous article about using bulldozers on the Moon).
“Now, all those are simple conceptually, but we’ve never done them in practice,” said Spudis, “so we don’t know how difficult it is. But by sending the small robotic missions to the Moon and practicing this via remote control from Earth, we can evaluate how difficult it is — where the chokepoints are — and what are the most efficient ways to get to these deposits and to extract usable a product from them.”
The next step is to increase the magnitude of the effort by landing bigger robotic machines that can actually start making product on industrial scales so that a depot of supplies can be stockpiled on the Moon for when the first human humans to return to the Moon.
In the meantime, a constant transportation system between Earth and Moon would be created, with another system that goes between the Moon and lunar orbit, which opens up all kinds of possibilities.
“The analogy I like to make is this is very similar to the Transcontinental Railroad,” Spudis said. “We didn’t just build the Transcontinental Railroad to from the East Coast directly to the West Coast; we also built it to access all the points in between, which consequently were developed economically as well.”
By having a system where the vehicles are refueled from the resources extracted on the Moon, a system is created that routinely accesses the Moon and allows for returning to Earth, but all the other points in between can be accessed as well.
“We create a transportation system that accesses all those points between Earth and Moon. The significance of that is, much of our satellite assets reside there,” said Spudis, “ for example communication satellites and weather monitoring satellites reside in geosynchronous orbit, (about 36,000 km above the Earth’s equator) and right now we cannot reach that from low Earth orbit. If we have system that can routinely go back and forth to the Moon, we could also go to these high orbits where a lot of commercial and national security assets are.”
Spudis added that a fuel depot could go in various locations, including the L1 LaGrange point which would enable space flight beyond the Moon.
How long will this take?
“We estimate that we can create an entire turn-key lunar outpost on the Moon within about 15 to 16 years, with humans arriving about 10 years after the initial robotic missions go,” Spudis said. “The mining operation would produce about 150 tons of water per year and roughly 100 tons of propellant.
And do any new technologies or hardware have to be built?
“Not really,” said Spudis. “Effectively this plan is possible to achieve right now with existing technology. We don’t have any ‘unobtainium’ or any special magical machine that has to be built. It is all very simple outgrowths of existing equipment, and many cases you can use the heritage equipment from previous missions.”
And what about the cost?
Spudis estimates that the entire system could be established for an aggregate cost of less than $88 billion, which would be about $5 billion a year, with peak funding of $6.65 billion starting in Year 11. This total cost includes development of a Shuttle-derived 70 mT launch vehicle, two versions of a Crew Exploration Vehicles (LEO and translunar), a reusable lander, cislunar propellant depots and all robotic surface assets, as well as all of the operational costs of mission support for this architecture.
“The best part is that because we have broken our architecture into small chunks, each mission is largely self-contained and once it gets to the Moon it interacts and works with the pieces that are already there,” Spudis said.
And the budget would be flexible.
“We can do this project at whatever speed the resources permit,” Spudis said. “So if you have a very constrained budget with very low levels of expenditure, you can go you just go much more slowly. If you have more resources available you can increase the speed and increase the rate of asset emplacement on the Moon and do more in a shorter period of time. This architecture gets us back to the Moon and creates real capability. But the free variable is schedule, not money.”
Returning to the Moon is important, Spudis believes, because not only can we use the resources there, but it teaches us how to be a spacefaring civilization.
“By going to the Moon we can learn how to extract what we need in space from what we find in space,” he said. “Fundamentally that is a skill that any spacefaring civilization has to master. If you can learn to do that, you’ve got a skill that will allow you to go to Mars and beyond.”
Listen to an interview of Paul Spudis on this topic for the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.
Paul Spudis blogs at Once and Future Moon at Smithonsian Air & Space website.
Take a look at any construction project or surface mining operation here on Earth and likely there will be bulldozers, loaders, and trucks; all essential in excavating and building structures. But as we look to the future with NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration which calls for a return to the Moon to build bases and habitats, how will heavy construction and excavation be accomplished on the lunar surface?
Caterpillar Inc., a company known for their heavy earth moving machines and the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, is looking to tackle that issue. They’ve partnered with NASA to create technology that could benefit construction and mine workers everywhere in the future, whether they grab a hard-hat or a space helmet on their way to work.
Caterpillar was one of 38 companies awarded seed funds as part of NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP). Projects are selected for this program because of their potential to advance key technologies that will help meet NASA’s critical needs for the future.
Caterpillar has proposed a multi-terrain loader for lunar surface development. Currently, they are working with NASA to develop the technology to augment existing earth moving equipment with sensors and on-board processors to provide time-delayed tele-operational control.
The loader would be able to undertake regolith moving such as grading, leveling, trenching, strip-mining, excavating and habitat covering. It also could be used for construction of lunar bases, the deployment or relocation of surface assets, as well as for mobility on the Moon.
Why is a down-to-earth company like Caterpillar interested in the Moon?
“The way we looked it, there are technologies that are needed on both the Earth and the moon,” Michele Blubaugh, Manager of Intelligence Technology Services at Caterpillar, told Universe Today. “We looked at autonomous operations of equipment as being the same type of technology that could be used on the moon as well as in a mining application. We have the same end result as NASA.”
That end result is to remove operators of construction equipment from a dangerous situation, whether it’s a machine operator in a dangerous mine environment or whether the operator is an astronaut on the lunar surface trying to excavate habitat sites.
There are two types of tele-operation. One is remote operation, where control of the machine is done with a remote operating system. There would be either a vision system on board or someone could actually see the machine as its operating. The other is autonomous operation, where the desired work is programmed and offloaded onto the machine and then the machine carries out the work without anyone interfacing with the machine, either remotely or directly. The machine would read the program at the site, positions itself, have avoidance capabilities to avoid rocks or any object that might be in the way, operating on its own to complete the given mission.
Caterpillar is working on both types of operation. “It’s one step to the next,” said Blublaugh. “You need both of those technologies developed, with remote operations first, and then the ultimate is autonomous operations.”
They are also investigating working remotely or autonomously on the Moon from Earth, and dealing with the six second time delay between the earth and the moon.
Currently, there are two multi-terrain loaders, the Caterpillar 287 C Skid Steer loader, outfitted with duplicates of the remote technology. One is located at Caterpillar’s proving grounds near their headquarters in Peoria, Illinois and the other is at the rock yard at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “That way we can develop it together,” said Blubaugh. “When we’re doing something, we each have a machine so we know how something reacts.”
The technology is still in the development stage. “We did some initial basic demonstrations when we delivered the machine in May of 2007 at JSC,” Blubaugh said. “A group of us went down, and the people at JSC were taught to use the machine and what the capabilities were, and we discussed the interfaces between the different types of technology.” In the summer of 2008, the group from Caterpillar will return to JSC to do an interim demonstration at a desert site.
Both machines have been undergoing tests. “Within the contract, NASA is responsible for some of the development and Caterpillar is responsible for other portions,” said Blubaugh, “and then there are things that we do jointly to move the technology along faster, so everyone benefits. JSC gets benefits of our facilities and our engineers working on technology, and vice versa, CAT gets benefits from the folks working at JSC and the technology they have and their facilities, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship between Johnson and CAT.”
Caterpillar has another contract proposal going to JSC shortly that takes the project to the next level.
“We’ll look to do berming, which is building an earthen berm around a site, leveling and sensing the position of the blade,” said Blubaugh. “We take the technology that we have accomplished today and take it to the next level. It’s almost an annual step by step process in the development and our target date for having a signature demo showcasing this type of technology autonomy, being able to load a program into the machine and having it operate all by itself is targeted for 2012.”
Since the 287 C skid loader is extremely heavy and runs on a diesel engine, it couldn’t be used on the moon. A prototype of a lunar loader-type vehicle is being developed by NASA and Caterpillar is assisting with developing the blade. “So, we’ll be involved in the project all the way along as it develops,” said Blubaugh.
The one-year IPP projects involve collaboration between NASA and a company from the private sector, academia or another government laboratory. All IPP companies address technology barriers with cost-shared, joint-development programs.
Other examples of NASA IPP research areas include the pursuit of improved engine performance and reduced emissions for aeronautics research; high-temperature materials for lunar lander engines, optics to lower error rates of future space telescopes, and a glass bubble insulation demonstration for cryogenic tanks.
With a total cost of the Caterpillar project of just under $1,000,000, Caterpillar is estimated to contribute about 45% and NASA 55%. For the entire NASA’s Innovative Partnership Program $9 million in funding comes from NASA’s Technology Transfer Partnerships budget, $13 million is provided by NASA sources in programs, projects, or field centers, and $12 million from external partners for a total combined financial commitment of $34 million.
“A lot of us at Caterpillar grew up in the time of the first space development,” said Blubaugh, “it’s quite exciting for us to be a part of this. Plus, it’s just a good investment in the future.”