The cold war between the US and Russia ended half a century ago. But it paved the way for Space exploration for the year to come. On 12 April 1961 Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin made history by becoming the first human to journey into outer space, achieving a major milestone in the Space Race. Then the Space Race ended when Neil Alden Armstrong became the first to walk on the moon.
Since then no human had set foot on any heavenly body. But now after Elon Musk’s BFR announcement and China’s successful landing on the far side of the moon another race to make a base on the moon is all set to start. And this time private companies and national space agencies are in it all together to put humans back on the lunar surface. But what we will need before we start building a Base On Moon.
Building a living space out of the Moon’s available resources makes sense. There’s the potential of using lava tubes, tunnels formed during the Moon’s volcanic past, as shelters with access to frozen water ice beneath the surface. But a more immediate plan is to build a habitat using lunar regolith, the fine dark basaltic grey sand that is similar to volcanic sand on Earth.
Building a moon base and actually living on the moon will require careful planning. First, we need to identify and map available lunar resources, including hydrogen and water ice. Such compounds are crucial if we are to create breathable air and rocket fuel, whether for an observatory or a launchpad to go to the outer planets in our solar system.
There are many desirable resources on the moon, from the water ice that can give us fuel and air and other volatile elements to titanium. These may have accumulated in permanently shadowed polar regions, where it is too cold for them to vaporise.
Professor Matthias Sperl from the University of Cologne works with the German Space Agency, DLR, using volcanic powder to make bricks. The regolith simulant is held together using a process called sintering, where concentrated sunlight or lasers bond the material together. He used 3D printers to construct different shaped bricks to see which worked best. “What we can build with current techniques and shapes is interlocking building elements,” said Sperl. “We’re not building Lego but we have interlocking bricks.”
Any moonbase is likely to be situated at the Moon’s poles as evidence of water ice was detected there. Oxygen within the lunar regolith itself could also be extracted for breathing. The most likely source is ilmenite (FeTiO3) which, when combined with hydrogen at temperatures of around 1,000C (1,832F), produces water vapour, which then needs to be separated to produce hydrogen and oxygen.
So all there is left to do is to go there and build one right? The answer is not so black and white. The Moon has temperatures ranging from 127 to -173 C (260 to -343F). Then there’s radiation and the low gravity, one-sixth that of the Earth’s. A lunar day is also around 29 Earth days, which means two weeks of daylight followed by two weeks of darkness – an issue for solar power. Any new technologies for a lunar outpost must, therefore, work under these conditions.
As well as logistics is a huge challenge as we can’t load everything on one single rocket yet. So yes it is within our reach to completely build a base on the Moon, but it will at least take a decade to do so.