Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at that closest of celestial neighbors to Earth. That’s right, we’re taking a look at the Moon!
Chances are, we’ve all heard about it more than once in our lifetimes and even have some thoughts of our own on the subject. But for space agencies around the world, futurists, and private aerospace companies, the idea of colonizing the Moon is not a question of “if”, but “when” and “how”. For some, establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon is a matter of destiny while for others, it’s a matter of survival.
Not surprisingly, plans for establishing a human settlement predate both the Moon Landing and the Space Race. In the past few decades, many of these plansa have been dusted off and updated thanks to plans for a renewed era of lunar exploration. So what would it take to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, when could it happen, and are we up to that challenge?
In the coming decades, NASA has some rather bold plans for space exploration. By the 2030s, they hope to mount their “Journey to Mars“. a crewed mission that will see astronauts traveling beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo era. At the same time, private companies and organizations like SpaceX and MarsOne are hoping to start colonizing Mars within a decade or so.
According to Chris Hadfield, these mission concepts are all fine and good. But as he explained in a recent interview, our efforts should be focused on renewed exploration of the Moon and the creation of a lunar settlement before we do the same for Mars. In this respect, he is joined by organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), and others.
When it comes to establishing a base on the Moon, the benefits are rather significant. For starters, a lunar outpost could serve as a permanent research base for teams of astronauts. In the same respect, it would present opportunities for scientific collaboration between space agencies and private companies – much in the same way the International Space Station does today.
On top of that, a lunar outpost could serve as a refueling station, facilitating missions deeper into the Solar System. According to estimates prepared by NexGen Space LLC (a consultant company for NASA), such a base could cut the cost of any future Mars missions by about $10 billion a year. Last, but not least, it would leverage key technologies that have been developed in recent years, from reusable rockets to additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing).
And as Chris Hadfield stated in an interview with New Scientist, there are also a number of practical reasons for back to the Moon before going to Mars – ranging from distance to the development of “space expertise”. For those interested in science and space exploration, Chris Hadfield has become a household name in recent years. Before becoming an astronaut, he was a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and flew missions for NORAD.
After joining the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 1992, he participated in two space missions – STS-74 and STS-100 in 1995 and 2001, respectively – as a Mission Specialist. These missions involved rendezvousing with the Russian space station Mir and the ISS. However, his greatest accomplishment occurred in 2012, when he became the first Canadian astronaut to command an ISS mission – Expedition 35.
During the course of this 148-day mission, Hadfield attracted significant media exposure due to his extensive use of social media to promote space exploration. In fact, Forbes described Hadfield as “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth”. His promotional activities included a collaboration with Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks, singing “Is Somebody Singing?“(I.S.S.) via Skype.
The broadcast of this event was a major media sensation, as was his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, which he sung shortly before departing the station in May 2013. Since retiring from the Canadian Space Agency, Hadfield has become a science communicator and advocate for space exploration. And when it comes to the future, he was quite direct in his appraisal that the we need to look to the Moon first.
According to Hadfield, one of the greatest reasons for establishing a base on the Moon has to do with its proximity and the fact that humans have made this trip before. As he stated:
“With long-haul space exploration there is a whole smorgasbord of unknowns. We know some of the threats: the unreliability of the equipment, how to provide enough food for that length of time. But there are countless others: What are the impacts of cosmic rays on the human body? What sort of spacecraft do you need to build? What are the psychological effects of having nothing in the window for months and months? And going to a place that no one has ever been before, that can’t be discounted.”
In that, he certainly has a point. At their closest – i.e. when it is at “opposition with the Sun”, which occurs approximately every two years – Mars and Earth are still very far from each othre. In fact, the latest closest-approach occurred in 2003, when the two planets were roughly 56 million km (33.9 million miles) apart. This past July, the planets were again at opposition, where they were about 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) apart.
During this time, astronauts would not only be subjected to a great deal of cosmic radiation, they would have to contend with the affects of microgravity. As studies that have been conducted aboard the ISS that have shown, long-term exposure to a microgravity environment can lead to losses in bone density, muscular atrophy, diminished eyesight, and organ damage.
Recent studies have also shown that exposure to radiation while on the surface of Mars would be quite significant. During its journey to Mars, the Curiosity rover recorded that it was subjected to average dose of 1.8 millisieverts (mSv) per day from inside its spaceship – the Mars Science Laboratory. During its first three hundred days on the surface, it was exposed to about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day.
This is about half and one-fifth (respectively) of what people are exposed to during an average here on Earth. While this falls outside of NASA’s official guidelines, it is still within the guidelines of other space agencies. But to make matter worse, a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, concluded that exposure to cosmic rays could cause cell damage that would spread to other cells in the body, effectively doubling the risk of cancer.
The risks of going to the Moon, in contrast, are easy to predict. Thanks to the Apollo missions, we know that it takes between two and three days to travel from the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo 11 mission, for example, launched from the Cape Kennedy on July 16th, 1969, and arrived in lunar orbit by July 19th, 1969 – spending a total of 51 hours and 49 minutes in space. Astronauts conducting this type of mission would therefore be subject to far less radiation.
Granted, the surface of the Moon is still exposed to significant amounts of radiation since the Moon has no atmosphere to speak of. But NASA estimates that walls which are 2.5 meters in thickness (and made from lunar regolith) will provide all the necessary shielding to keep astronauts or colonists safe. Another good reason to go to the Moon first, according to Hadfield, is because expertise in off-world living is lacking.
“There are six people living on the International Space Station, and we have had people there continuously for nearly 17 years,” he said. “But the reality is we have not yet figured out how to live permanently off-planet. So I think if we follow the historically driven pattern then the moon would be first. Not just to reaffirm that we can get there, but to show that we can also live there.”
But perhaps the best reason to settle the Moon before moving onto Mars has to do with the fact that exploration has always been about taking the next step, and then the next. One cannot simply leap from one location to the next, and expect successful results. What are required is baby-steps. And in time, sufficient traction can be obtained and the process will build up speed, enabling steps that are greater and more far-reaching. Or as Hadfield put it:
“For tens of thousands of years humans have followed a pattern on Earth: imagination, to technology-enabled exploration, to settlement. It’s how the first humans got to Australia 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, and how we went from Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd orbiting Earth to the first people putting footprints on the moon, to people living in orbit.
Based on this progression, one can therefore see why Hadfield and others beleive that the next logical step is to return to the Moon. And once we establish a foothold there, we can then use it to launch long-range missions to Mars, Venus, and beyond. Incremental steps that eventually add up to human beings setting foot on every planet, moon, and larger body in the Solar System.
On the subject of lunar colonization, be sure to check out our series on Building a Moon Base, by Universe Today’s own Ian O’Neill.
When human beings colonize other Solar bodies, how will they see to their basic needs? Already, research has been performed to determine where colonists would be able to procure water, how they might grow their own food, and where and how they might live. But what about the finer things in life, the things that make all the hard labor and sacrifice worth it? In case it’s not clear yet, I’m talking about beer!
If and when Lunar or Martian colonies become a reality, will the colonists be able to brew and enjoy their own beer? Or will imported beer be the only thing available to them? That’s the question a team of bioengineering students from the University of California San Diego sought to answer. As finalists who competed in the Lab2Moon competition being held by TeamIndus, they combined their love of beer with their love of space exploration.
As the only Indian team in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, TeamIndus has been working on a privately-funded spacecraft to send to the Moon. Once complete, TeamIndus hopes to conduct a soft landing on the surface of the Moon later this year. Their accomplishments so far include being one of the five teams selected to compete in the Milestone Prizes and successfully winning the $1 million Milestone Prize for their landing technology.
The Lab2Moon competition was held in order to see a youth experiment brought to the Moon aboard that spacecraft. And while their experiment did not take home the top prize, their final prototype will still be going into space. Thanks to Synergy Moon, who won an XPrize verified launch contract, the experiment will be launched aboard a rocket this December (the planned launch date is currently Dec. 28th, 2017).
For the sake of their experiment, the UC San Diego team – all undergraduates with the Jacobs School of Engineering – sought to test if yeast would be viable in a Lunar environment. As the key ingredient in the production of beer (and many other beneficial things), their experiment sought to determine if Lunar colonists will be capable of becoming their own brewmasters.
Their team name is “Original Gravity”, a delicious pun that alludes to both brewing and the Lunar conditions they are investigating. In the case of brewing, Original Gravity (OG) is the measure of sugars dissolved in the wort (the beer before it is fermented). In the case of the Moon, it refers to the fact that Lunar gravity is just 0.165 times that of Earth’s, which could affect the behavior of the microorganisms like yeast.
As Neeki Ashari, a fifth-year bioengineering student and the team’s PR & Operations Lead, said in a University press release:
“The idea started out with a few laughs amongst a group of friends. We all appreciate the craft of beer, and some of us own our own home-brewing kits. When we heard that there was an opportunity to design an experiment that would go up on India’s moonlander, we thought we could combine our hobby with the competition by focusing on the viability of yeast in outer space.”
With sponsorship from the Omega Yeast Labs, the team designed a unique brewing system. First, all the prep work that precedes the adding of yeast – for instance, combining malted barley and water to create wort – would take place on Earth. Second, the team plans to combine the “fermentation” and “carbonation” phases – which are usually done separately – into one phase.
This process makes for a system that is much easier to design, eliminates the need for releasing accumulated CO² (which can be a hazard) and also prevents the possibility of over-pressurization if anything in the system fails. Last, the testing of fermentation will not rely on density measurements that rely on gravity (as brewers do on Earth), using pressure to determine sugar content instead.
As Han Ling, a fifth-year bioengineering undergraduate student and the team’s leader, explained, “Converting the pressure buildup to fermentation progress is straightforward, as long as volume and original gravity – specific gravity before fermentation, hence our name – are known prior to the experiment.” Measuring roughly as wide as a soda can, their system is able to ferment yeast and worst to create beer, even under Lunar conditions.
In addition to being the first-ever experiment to brew beer in space, their experiment will also be the first to craft beer using such a small apparatus. A Srivaths Kaylan, a fourth-year nano-engineering major and the team’s mechanical lead, indicated:
“Our canister is designed based on actual fermenters. It contains three compartments—the top will be filled with the unfermented beer, and the second will contain the yeast. When the rover lands on the moon with our experiment, a valve will open between the two compartments, allowing the two to mix. When the yeast has done it’s job, a second valve opens and the yeast sink to the bottom and separate from the now fermented beer.”
Looking to the future, Ashari and the team hope to see their experiment adapted for use on other planets – like Mars! Other proposed experiments that were entered in the competition included methods for photosynthesis to producing electricity in a Lunar environment. Beyond making beer, understanding how yeast will behave in a Lunar environment is also important in the development of pharmaceuticals and yeast-containing foods, such as bread.
It certainly is interesting to think about what kind of beers could be produced in an extra-terrestrial environment, isn’t it? Will future generations of brewers have the option of using locally-grown barley, wheat, hops, and yeast cultures to craft their beer? Will the use of Lunar or Martian water have an effect on the taste of the beer?
And then there’s the matter of names and styles. Will Lunar brewers create a Dark Side of the Moon Stout? Will the people of Mars specialize in Red Ales? Like I said, interesting!
For the time being, it appears NASA has set aside any ambitions to return to the Moon with human missions. But Russia may consider sending cosmonauts to the lunar surface to set up a colony using natural caves and possible volcanic tunnels as protection from the harsh lunar environment.
“If it turns out that the Moon has a number of caves that can provide some protection from radiation and meteor showers, it could be an even more interesting destination than previously thought,” said veteran cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, quoted in an article by Reuters.
Krikalev served on board two different space stations and flew on the space shuttle. He now leads Russia’s Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow. He and Russian scientists discussed the possible Moon base a forum on the future of manned spaceflight.
The image above is from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showing a cave or pit found in the Sea of Tranquility. Scientists have estimated the depth of the pit at over 100 meters, and several other caves have been found with orbiting spacecraft. Lunar scientists are studying the images to determine if an extended lava tube system still exists beneath the surface.
“This new discovery that the moon may be a rather porous body could significantly alter our approach to founding lunar bases,” said Krikalev. “There wouldn’t be any need to dig the lunar soil and build walls and ceilings. It would be enough to use an inflatable module with a hard outer shell to — roughly speaking — seal the caves.”
Reuters quoted Russian scientist Boris Kryuchkov as saying the first such lunar colonies could be built by 2030.
Krikalev has more than two years cumulative time in space His first long-duration flight to the Soviet space station Mir was in 1988, and he did back-to-back increments on Mir flight starting in May 1991 and returning to Earth in March 1992. While he was in orbit, the Soviet Union disintegrated and Mir became a Russian space station.
He became the first Russian to fly a Shuttle mission on STS-60 in February 1994. His second Shuttle flight took the Unity node to the International Space Station on STS-88 in December 1998. He was a member of the Station’s Expedition 1 crew, launching in October 2000 and returning to Earth in March 2001. He launched as commander of Expedition 11 in 2005.