Space lovers around the world are rightly mesmerized by the image of the Moonscape shot by the NASA GRAIL spacecraft before its crash. The resultant video gives a low fly-over that makes the Moon come alive as it unfolds below you. While the Moon is a complete, airless desert, somehow it’s also bulging with mineral, metal, and liquid resources, and in this view it looks like it. It becomes easy enough to envision mining, and from that extraction of resources, processing, manufacturing, and construction. It’s also easy to envision great numbers of people wanting to visit if they had a chance – an era of tourism, just around the corner but already sending us signals.
Private space efforts are being kickstarted by, $30 million, 90% pooled by private donors, to be awarded to the first team to the first privately funded teams “to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth.”
25 teams formed and stepped forward in response.
The challenge is severe. Just because we have visited the Moon doesn’t mean she isn’t still a harsh mistress. Team Phoenicia details the basic challenges. The combination of the Moon’s being vacuum and its 14-day long “day” and “night” combine to create conditions that would stress any heavy machinery being used. In particular, extremes of heat and cold. When the Sun shines on a valve on Earth, its heat has the entire Earth’s atmosphere to take off its heat. In a vacuum, there would be nowhere for the heat to go, and that with the Sun shining constantly on it during the unblinking lunar day. Among these, two notables are MoonEx and Astrobotics, which is aiming for a late 2015 mission to land a rover and then find that most intriguing resource of the many the Moon possesses: water. Of course, the lunar environment brings a special set of challenges to extracting water, too. The Moon’s extreme conditions have left it in a form of ice that it is roughly as hard as iron.
MoonEx is more interested in the Moon’s mineral resources and rare metals, including gold, titanium, and the tantalizing potential energy source He3.
They won’t be alone. China has also announced plans to commence robotic lunar exploration. So have Russia, India, Japan, and others.
SpaceX is slated to carry Astrobotic and any other interested parties aboard its Falcon 9 rocket. Once the rocket has lifted the lunar robots out of Earth’s gravity well, another Falcon would await it in orbit to take it the rest of the way to the Moon.
SpaceX is building quite a record of success, from docking at ISS to successfully launching and landing a reusable rocket. It’s easy to forget that not fifteen years ago it was common to read space advocates bemoaning how remote prospects seemed for inexpensive commercial launch. Yet the reason the Moon remains important is because if we are ever to do anything in space larger than what can be built launching one capsule after another, we’re going to have to mine, refine, and build things entirely in space. One of the things we’ll need is rocket fuel for more Falcons, which can be made from the iron-hard ice. SpaceX will launch the tools to do that work.
Perhaps the day the Moon truly comes home to us will be the day a private tourist goes out for Chinese food. In any event, provided we don’t end up starting little robot Moon-wars up there, it will be good to have the luxury of redundancy; that there’ll be other camps around if something goes wrong. Of course, the human rather than robotic presence in any large numbers isn’t expected until into the ‘20s. That doesn’t stop companies like Bigelow Aerospace from beginning to sketch up a way it might be done.
A multiplicity of Moon bases would tend to spur a crucial development toward rotating stations generating their own artificial gravity. This is the only way to permit more extensive stays at the Moon. Whichever station, whether public or private, that can offer several months and more at the Moon without the significant damage microgravity brings will have a serious competitive advantage.
Fortunately, a lot of work can be done using reinforced rovers equipped with various robotic tools, which can be teleoperated from Earth. Perhaps one day Moon robot teleoperation will become a fairly common job here on Earth.
by Todd Jackson