In my article about the prospects of colonising Mars (published in May last year), I wrote about how incredibly difficult it’d be to do so and how fixing problems on earth would be a much more practical solution.
Andy Weir, author of The Martian, sums up this view pretty well. “I guarantee you that regardless of how bad the problems are on Earth, environmentally or whatever else, it’s easier to fix them than to colonise another planet. I guarantee you that,” he told Business Insider in an interview last November.
The same reasoning would apply to colonising the Moon although it’s a less daunting task than trying to populate Mars. Or as Weir puts it: “It’s so much easier to colonise the Sahara or Antarctica or the ocean than it would be to colonise the moon.”
For sure there are a lot of challenges in trying to set up settlements on the moon. The weather is one of them. It’s both very hot and very cold up there, with a 280° Celsius difference between the daytime (100°) and night-time (-18°) temperatures. There’s almost no atmosphere to speak off. This means radiation will be a problem. But also, the moon is constantly hit by tiny projectiles in the form of meteorites which do not burn up on the way to the surface because of the lack of an atmosphere. That’s why you see so many craters on the moon’s surface.
But the moon does have one thing going for it that makes it a better candidate for colonisation than Mars — its proximity to Earth. We can reach the moon in three days whereas even in the best circumstances, it would take six months to get to Mars. This is important because if there were to be any mishap or emergency of some kind, it’s more practical to send a rescue mission to the Moon than to Mars. If you’ve seen the movie, The Martian, which was based on Weir’s book, you’d understand how crucial this is.
Close proximity also means easier communications. Light takes less than two seconds to reach the Moon so you could have almost real-time communication between people on Earth and the Moon. In contrast, with Mars the time delay could take up to 24 minutes.
For habitation to be possible there would need to be a source of water and power. Let’s look at water first. Data from Nasa’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water in the form of ice may be plentiful on the moon. India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft has found more than 40 craters containing water ice on the lunar North Pole. It’s estimated that there could be 100 billion kg of water ice in these regions.
Water is important for three reasons. Firstly, humans need to drink water to survive. We also need oxygen to breathe and water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen. The latter can be used as rocket fuel.
Now let’s look at power. Solar power will most likely be the primary source of electricity. This can be challenging though because most places on the moon have very long nights (periods of darkness) that can last for 15 days. That’s a long time to wait for a recharge. You’d definitely need much better batteries than we have now.
But there could be a solution in the poles. The Japanese spacecraft SELENE has identified four peaks near the lunar South Pole which receives sunlight more than 80 per cent of the time. Nasa’s Clementine orbiter has also discovered that the nearby Malapert Mountain receives sunlight nearly 90 per cent of the time. Similar peaks are found at the lunar North Pole. Perhaps solar energy can be gathered in those places and distributed to wherever the lunar colonies are.
The issue of extreme temperatures, intense radiation and regular meteor showers might be resolved by having the colonies stay inside lunar caves. Last October, Japan’s SELENE probe discovered a massive underground cave that was 100 metres wide and 50km long. The cave is believed to be a lava tube created by volcanic activity dating back 3.5 billion years. It’s situated just metres underneath volcanic domes called the Marius Hills.
Lava tubes “might be the best candidate sites for future lunar bases, because of their stable thermal conditions and potential to protect people and instruments from micrometeorites and cosmic ray radiation,” said Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher at Japan’s space agency, Jaxa.
As for food, of course initially the colonists would have to rely on supplies sent from Earth. But eventually they’ll have to grow their own food. Nasa has done studies on this for some time now and in a 1991 paper, Lunar farming: achieving maximum yield for the exploration of space, it concluded that just a quarter of a hectare of land can produce enough food to sustain 50 people.
Technology is also not that much of an issue. After all, astronauts have actually been to the moon and there are people already living on the International Space Station where the life support system is able to recycle the water and balance out the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
Realising the dream
The advent of 3D printing could allow for small components that break down to be recreated on the spot rather than having to wait for replacement parts to be sent from earth. But of course, there would still be a need for food and other essential supplies to be regularly sent from Earth, especially in the initial years. To do that affordably, reusable rockets would be needed.
Nasa doesn’t have those but there are some private initiatives that could supply such technology. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a Falcon 9 rocket that can be used to carry small payloads to the moon, and it has a Falcon Heavy rocket that could carry larger payloads.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is also bullish on the moon and has invested in a company called Blue Origin which is developing a rocket called New Glenn (named after the astronaut John Glenn) which will also be reusable. Blue Origin’s goal isn’t to send humans to the Moon but cargo — the equipment necessary to establish a human colony on the moon.
So, when is this all going to happen? Japan has said it wants to land a human on the Moon by 2030. Russia is also aiming to do so by 2030. China’s target date is 2036. So, it looks like perhaps a decade or so away, which sounds realistic.
The US hasn’t set a target date although it too has expressed interest in a lunar colony. That’s important because although China and Russia have made successful unmanned moon landings, it’s only the US that has actually put astronauts on the surface of the Moon. So far, 12 American astronauts have been there although the last time this happened was way back in 1972 with the Apollo 17 mission.
President Donald Trump recently formally ordered Nasa to focus on sending humans back to the Moon. “The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space programme on human exploration and discovery,” said Trump during the signing of his space directive to Nasa last December. “It marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use. This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.”