Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences, The Open University
August 8, 2019

We’ve just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, glorying in the achievements of three astronauts and the team of engineers and scientists behind them. From that perspective, we can look back and see what we have learned from the mission. But what if we take a giant leap forward in time and look back at the legacy of Apollo from 2069 – a century after the historic event?

It was thanks to the rocks collected by the Apollo astronauts that scientists could work out the age of the moon, its evolutionary history and how the Earth and other planets evolved. Continued study of the samples, complemented with new information from orbiting spacecraft, also showed that the moon was not the dry and desiccated body we had thought.

seagate hard drive ad

Rather, the moon has abundant water reservoirs, stored as ice below its surface and in shadowed craters at the poles. There’s also water locked within specific minerals and absorbed into the lunar soil from impacts of tiny meteorites.

This finding led to a resurgence in the idea of the moon as a starting point for exploration of the further reaches of the solar system. That’s because water can also be used as a fuel. If you separate the hydrogen and the oxygen that make up water, you can then let the two gases react with each other – this is essentially what goes on in a rocket engine. The oxygen can also be used to provide breathable air for astronauts, opening up new opportunities for habitation and long-distance space travel alike.

But how do you extract these gases from water ice? The moon’s permanently shadowed regions are close to areas that are sunlit for more than 80% of the time. If the sunlight could be harvested using solar panels, sufficient energy could be generated for electrolysis – chemical decomposition splitting the extracted water into pure hydrogen and oxygen by passing an electric current through a liquid or solution.

Current plans

Today, discussions about lunar exploration have moved away from establishment of a permanent lunar base as a preliminary for extended exploration. Instead, there has been a significant advance in planning the construction of the Deep Space Gateway – a space station in orbit around the moon. This is an international project between a number of different space agencies.

Commercial companies are also playing an important role in this project, which is much more than an extension of the International Space Station. The spacecraft will be a hub of scientific and engineering activity. It will be serviced by the Orion module and will act as a test bed for astronauts preparing for longer duration missions, such as to Mars. Missions could also eventually be launched from there, saving money on fuel as the rockets won’t have to make it through the Earth’s enormous gravity.

Lunar rock. NASA/Arizona State University, Tom Story

The experiments scientists could do there – such as monitoring the external environment of the moon, including radiation levels – would certainly help prepare us to send missions to Mars and beyond. And testing the physiology of astronauts in a low gravity environment would not only be of use for planning future space missions, but may also lead to the development of medical interventions to alleviate the effects of ageing.

Different space agencies have separate visions for how lunar exploration could progress, with varying levels of detail published. NASA’s programme of lunar exploration is based on using the gateway to facilitate a regular series of visits to the moon by astronauts. The European Space Agency has a similar set of objectives and is working closely with Russia’s RosCosmos to drill at the lunar south pole and with Japan’s JAXA to return samples from the moon.

Resources available on the moon’s surface include metals from the lunar soil (especially titanium) and solar energy to provide power. This could eventually enable infrastructure to be built, allowing humans to create an actual lunar base soon – even though plans are now focussing on getting the gateway done first. One exciting possibility that is actively being explored is the idea of a lunar base built from modules that are 3D printed on the lunar surface using fuel extracted from the lunar soil as an energy source and building material.

Most likely scenario

Between 1969 and 1972, 12 men landed on the moon, spending, in total, just over three days exploring the lunar surface. They planted the flag of a single nation, collected rocks and undertook a few simple experiments. Between 2019 and 2069, what might we actually hope to see? A permanent, international lunar base on the moon’s surface, surrounded by flags of all the nations involved, would certainly be possible.

There would have to be refreshed space law to make this possible though, including a specific Lunar Treaty reinforcing the idea that only peaceful use of the moon is permitted, that international cooperation is paramount and commercial exploitation of resources forbidden. Currently, the legal framework is contradictory and confusing.

There would most likely be a changing roster of (male and female) astronauts of all nationalities in continuous occupation of this base. They would be not be “astronauts” per se though. They would be scientists undertaking experiments and collecting data from instruments based on the moon (including the far side) as well as engineers designing, building and maintaining infrastructure for further exploration, plus ancillary support staff. A regular shuttle service would operate between the lunar surface and the Deep Space Gateway and also between Earth and the Deep Space Gateway, for personnel and resources.

Lunar base concept. NASA

It is likely that the tourist trade will be burgeoning, necessitating a transport infrastructure on the lunar surface, plus a hotel, with its attendant caterers, cleaners, tour guides and so forth.

All this activity would require a spaceport, not just for transfers between the Earth and the moon, but also for spacecraft using the moon as a launchpad for exploring further afield. Indeed, by 2069, we could be seeing the start of regular journeys to Mars.

This will be too late for me: by 2069, my travelling days will be over – I will be 111 years old. But maybe if the medical benefits from occupation of the moon are transferred into terrestrial health services, I might still be sufficiently alert to receive messages from my grandson and his family as they holiday on the moon.

Cover image via NASA

Source: The Conversation