Living on the Moon

How we could turn craters into colonies for human life…

The Moon is our closest neighbour, but only 12 people have ever set foot on its surface. Since 1972, the only visitors have been robots, orbiters and probes. For a long time there was little interest in going back, but at just three days journey away from Earth, the Moon is an obvious target for further investigation. With more countries establishing their own space programmes, and an increasing number of private companies entering the field, interest in the Moon is growing once again.

The environment on the Moon’s surface is hazardous, but if we can find a way to construct a base we would gain access to a wealth of off-world resources. It is a prime location for telescopes and communications equipment, and its unique environment could hold clues to the history of the Solar System. The Moon’s potential has been recognised by organisations across the world, and there are now several exploratory missions in development. At the moment, these are focused around finding out more about the Moon’s potential, but over the next few decades, manned missions and even base construction could be on the agenda.

Russia’s Roscosmos are planning a series of Luna-Glob missions as a starting point for establishing a robotic base, and in collaboration with the European Space Agency, they are hoping to scope out the Moon’s south pole in 2019 and 2020. The China National Space Administration are developing a series of Chang’e probes to collect lunar samples in preparation for future mining missions, and they are building a shuttle capable of lifting human astronauts to the Moon. What’s more, in 2007, Google launched the Lunar XPRIZE, encouraging private companies to land rovers on the surface by 2017. Even NASA, who has chosen to focus their resources on manned missions to asteroids and to Mars, are developing a probe to map the water deposits on the lunar south pole.

At the moment, we are just taking our first tentative steps towards further exploration of the Moon, but in the future a science fiction-style base on the surface could become a reality. We explore what such a lunar outpost might look like, and what hazards and challenges could get in the way…

Earth rise from Moon
People on a Moon base would have a stunning view of home

Why the Moon?

With preparations already underway for manned missions to Mars, some might question the logic behind a return to the Moon, but a lunar outpost could bring several advantages. A trip to the Moon and back could be completed in under a week, and the surface is rich in resources. Lunar dust contains hydrogen, oxygen, iron and other metals, and if these resources could be mined, it could provide a close off-world source of water and building materials.

The far side of the Moon is shielded from the noise of Earth’s communications, providing a quiet vantage point for looking out into the universe, and the near side has a constant view of the surface of our planet, making it an ideal place to set up monitoring stations. Navigational support could also be provided for a variety of operations, from search and rescue on Earth to deep space exploration.

A base on the Moon would also allow us to look closer at its geology, which in turn would help us uncover more about its history and the evolution of the Solar System. Experiments could be conducted, and materials and equipment could be tested, away from the familiar conditions on Earth.

How to build a base

The Moon has little atmosphere and none of the protective shielding that we enjoy here on Earth; as a result, the surface is hostile. It is pummelled by solar winds, scorched by radiation, and chunks of rock regularly fall from the sky. The ground is coated in the shattered remains of ancient asteroid impacts, forming a thick layer of sticky dust, and with no atmosphere or weather to wear the particles down, the grains are razor sharp. A successful base would need protection against all of these threats, and, for people to stay there long-term, it would also require a steady supply of food, water, oxygen, power, shelter and rocket fuel.

One of the most popular concepts for a lunar base is inflatable housing – lightweight and easily assembled by pressurising from the inside. With the airlock from the landing capsule used as a door, these structures could provide a quick and simple solution to setting up a base. However, a puncture could prove catastrophic, so the pods would need to be shielded in underground chambers or beneath piles of Moon dust.

Flat-packed panels could also be shipped in from Earth to build sturdier dome or hangar structures, but it would be much more fuel-efficient to use building materials found on the surface of the Moon. When heated, lunar dust can be transformed into a tough solid that could be used to construct buildings and roads, and 3D printers could one day be used to make structures from the regolith.

In the right location, solar panels could provide renewable power for the base, and, if plants are able to grow on the Moon, it could one day be possible to set up a semi-sustainable farming and composting system. Then, if water, oxygen and hydrogen (rocket fuel) could be extracted from lunar dust, a base might even be able to become self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, there are still major challenges to be overcome before we reach this stage, not least the devastating effects of lunar dust. The dust seems to find its way inside even tightly sealed spaces, causing rapid damage to equipment. There are some ideas to get around this, including cable cars or covered transport tubes to minimise the disturbance on the surface, and clean rooms and air locks to keep inside spaces dust-free.

moon base
What could a lunar base be used for? (click to zoom)

Location, location, location…

The Apollo missions landed close to the Moon’s equator, where the surface is smooth and entering orbit is easy, but these regions have serious problems with temperature control. The Moon turns on its axis once every 28 Earth days, so daytime at the equator lasts for two weeks, and temperatures climb to more than 100 degrees Celsius. For the other two weeks, the same spot is plunged into total darkness and the surface cools to 150 degrees below freezing.

These wide fluctuations could pose real problems for buildings and equipment, and with sunlight absent for days at a time, solar power would be intermittent. Facing head on to the Sun and with little in the way of atmosphere, the equator is also blasted by radiation and solar winds.

At the poles, night and day are less dramatic. The surface is rougher, but certain areas receive sunlight for most of the year, and the temperature remains more stable at around zero degrees Celsius. There is also water ice trapped at the poles, which could provide gases, fluids and even rocket fuel.

One promising location is Shackleton Crater, which is found at the Moon’s southern pole. It receives sunlight for around 80 per cent of the year, which could provide a near constant source of electricity from solar panels. Building a base near the equator would be more challenging, but underground habitats could provide enough protection in more exposed locations. Lava tubes like the Marius Hills pit could offer ready-made shelter from temperature fluctuations, solar wind, radiation and surface dust.

moon locations
There are many factors to consider when picking the perfect spot for a Moon base (click to zoom)

 

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Article extract from “Living on the Moon” by Laura Mears, How It Works issue 82, available now from the Imagine Shop

Images: NASA, ESA; Lunar base illustration by Jay Wong.

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