Back to the lunar future: even if Mars is our destination, many space scientists argue that we need go back to the Moon first.
"Many agencies consider human missions to the lunar surface as an essential step in preparation for human Mars missions. Lunar missions are favored by agencies who view the Moon as the next step for human planetary exploration," states the Global Exploration Roadmap, an August 2013 document authored by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a forum of NASA and 13 other space agencies working to coordinate international progress on space exploration.
The China National Space Administration is one such agency. Having successfully executed Chang'e 3, a December 2013 mission that landed a robotic rover on the Moon, the Chinese space program is now planning Chang'e 5, which will fly Chinese astronauts to the Moon and bring them back with a sample of lunar soil. It hopes to follow with the establishment of a lunar base, and further down the road, the jumpstarting of Moon-based energy industries, manufacturing, agriculture, and medicine production.
Meanwhile, Russian space agency Roscosmos plans to launch three lunar rovers between 2016 and 2019: Luna-25, which will land at the Moon's south pole; Luna-26, which will survey the Moon's equator; and Luna-27, which will drill for water ice in the sub-polar areas. Afterwards, it will launch Luna-28 and Luna-29, which will bring samples of lunar rock back to Earth. Roscosmos, like China's space agency, also hopes to establish permanent research bases on the Moon's surface.
"Everyone else is galvanized for the Moon; the United States is the holdout on this," says Jeffrey Hoffman, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics who has attended several ISECG meetings. "The United
States is ostracizing itself from its international partners, because its international partners all want to go to the Moon."
Hoffman himself made headlines earlier this year when he co-authored a proposal for building fuel-storage depots in lunar orbit. He told THE FUTURIST that the Moon is a particularly attractive destination, in part because of its proximity and in part because it appears to hold an abundance of raw materials that space habitations could use.
"We know that it has resources, but we also know that it's close. So testing things on the Moon makes sense," says Hoffman. "We have places to go, in terms of being able to harvest resources that would generate materials for life-support systems of a permanent base."
For example, many researchers think that the Moon's surface rock and dust contain condensed molecules of hydrogen and oxygen. If lunar settlers scooped up and heated enough rock and dust, they might derive air, water, and rocket fuel.
That is in theory, anyway. Hoffman cautions that some exploratory missions that test the lunar soil would be necessary to see if--and where--it has substantial reserves of vital resources.
"If we're seriously talking about using lunar resources on site, living off the land, then you need to know something about what's there and what equipment you would need," says Hoffman.
The Moon may also provide the substrate for those bases. Satellite data indicates that long-ago volcanic activity carved out tunnels beneath the Moon's surface. Sergei Krikalyov, head of Russia's Star City cosmonaut training center, points to these tunnels as perfect locations for lunar bases--their surrounding rock would shelter inhabitants from space radiation, meteor showers, and temperature extremes.
"There wouldn't be any need to dig the lunar soil and build walls and ceilings," Krikalyov said at a forum on lunar exploration. "It would be enough to use an inflatable module with a hard outer shell to--roughly speaking--seal the caves."
Learning to utilize these underground formations might also be a transferrable skill for Mars exploration and development. Clive Neal, a University of Notre Dame planetary geologist, cites images of lunar-like formations on Mars. In addition, he looks forward to Moon life teaching us how to maintain life-support systems for indefinite periods of time, how to effectively operate remote-controlled robotic missions far from Earth, and how to protect human settlers from the physically harmful effects of extended stays in low-gravity.
"The Moon, by its proximity, seems a logical place to go to conduct surface operations to conduct new technologies in a hostile environment, and in partial gravity," says Neal.
The first step would probably be setting up work stations in lunar orbit, according to Kurt Klaus, an aerospace engineer pursuing lunar spaceflight research and development with Boeing. He envisions these floating workstations as venues for storing fuel and lunar materials and as staging grounds for later surface-level construction.
"We have to do what we are able to afford, and right now I think it's more affordable to first get to the lunar vicinity," he says. "A human-tended capability in the lunar vicinity enables staging for lunar surface operations, which provide critical deep-space experience needed for exploration beyond our Moon."
Once we have working infrastructure down on the Moon, we can develop remote-controlled rovers and other systems for exploring the Moon in more depth. Like Neal, Klaus looks forward to these machines aiding human missions to Mars, too.
"A habitat in the lunar vicinity demonstrates deep-space operations, while surface excursions provide an opportunity to test hardware and procedures for future voyages to the Red Planet," he says. "Crews could operate rovers and instrumentation on the Moon's surface and demonstrate the concept for future deep-space missions to destinations beyond the Earth-Moon system."
Boeing is currently developing an Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which a robotic spacecraft will capture an asteroid and tow it to lunar orbit for astronauts to study directly. The Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, a space-exploration research group that Klaus serves as an executive committee member, suggests repurposing this spacecraft to be a vehicle that conveys cargo and crews to and from lunar orbit and the surface, and be "a deep-space assembly and servicing site" for further incursions into deep space.
Hoffman foresees private-sector companies taking up much of the groundwork. Tapping into the Moon's suspected helium and titanium reserves for use on the Moon or for sale back on Earth would be a challenging but potentially hugely lucrative venture for the companies that work through the technicalities. So would the construction of solar-energy installations that capture solar radiation on the Moon's surface and direct it to Earth in concentrated laser beams.
"The only way that lunar exploration is going to be sustainable is if there are new resources that can be exploited," he says. "It makes sense to me that someday the Moon will become a part of Earth's economy the way that low-Earth orbit is today."
In time, more human activity might follow. It may even include vacationers looking to really get away from it all.
"We have tourists going to the South Pole now, and it's a pretty inhospitable place," says Hoffman. "So if it becomes possible to maintain large numbers of people on the Moon, could tourism be far behind?"
Sources: Clive Neal, University of Notre Dame, www3.nd.edu/~cneal/.
Jeffrey Hoffman, MIT, aeroastro.mit.edu/faculty-research/faculty-list/ jeffrey-hoffman.
Kurt Klaus, Boeing, www.boeing.com.
Annual Report 2013 and Global Exploration Roadmap, International Space Exploration Coordination Group, www.globalspaceexploration.org.
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|Title Annotation:||Space: Sci/Tech|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2014|
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