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What is the mission to colonize the Moon?

Space agencies are discussing sending people to the moon and creating the first colonies. Another 10 years may pass before the actual landing, but technologies for extracting water, processing regolith, and creating residential modules are no longer science fiction.

According to updated plans, in 2025, NASA, together with commercial companies and international partners, including ESA, JAXA, and CSA, plans to land the first woman and man on the Moon as part of the Artemis program. This step for the agency, unlike the one-time Apollo missions in the 20th century, is the beginning of a sustainable human presence on the Moon. China and Russia, as part of the ILRS initiative, are striving for the same thing – the first astronauts on the Earth’s satellite are expected to appear after 2030. Both programs see the ultimate goal of creating a lunar base, which could become a starting point for long-distance flights into space.

New race for the moon

In 2020, NASA unveiled the multi-phase Artemis plan, named after Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, fertility, and the Moon. The program starts with the participation of robots (the first launch is scheduled for February 2022). First, two missions will deliver scientific payloads to the Moon, including the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). The human phase will begin in 2025. Four people will fly on the Orion spacecraft to the Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (analogous to the ISS, the main contractor for the delivery of which will be Elon Musk’s SpaceX).

After this, people will finally land on the surface of the satellite and stay there for a week. They will set up a base camp, and by 2028 a small Lunar Surface Asset station will appear on the Moon – the first base with a permanent crew.

NASA’s main competitor in the lunar race is Russia and China with the joint IRLS (International Lunar Research Station) program. The roadmap was presented by Roscosmos and the Chinese National Space Administration in the summer of 2021 at the GLEX forum.

There are 14 missions planned within the IRLS. In 2021, the exploration phase began; by 2025, scientists will choose a location for a lunar base, the construction of which will take place from 2026 to 2035; from 2036, full-fledged work with the participation of people will begin. The base, like NASA’s, will be supported by an orbital station in lunar space, through which communication will take place between the Earth and its natural satellite.

Construction of the first bases

NASA’s plans for the development of the planet are currently related to the area in the vicinity of the Shackleton crater at the South Pole of the Moon with a diameter of 20.9 km and a depth of 4.2 km. The research will begin with the VIPER lunar rover. He will look for resources that the colony will need, primarily water. Once scientists receive data from the rover, they will be able to adjust their plans.

Before creating a full-fledged Lunar Surface Asset base, NASA plans to organize a small Artemis Base Camp, which will consist of only three parts.

A two-seater unpressurized all-terrain vehicle (Lunar Terrain Vehicle). Astronauts will be able to travel short distances (up to 20 km) in the new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuits.

A high-tech van called a “mobile habitable platform” (Habitable Mobility Platform). It will be sealed, with life support systems. People will be able to spend up to 45 days in it. Designed for long trips outside the camp.

A fixed platform (Foundation Surface Habitat) that can accommodate up to four astronauts to live on the Moon for several months.

With each new mission, the base camp will grow. The final form has not been determined – it depends on technology and research results. The Lunar Surface Asset initiative involves excavation and energy production, which means placing equipment, solar panels, and reactors.

In the camp and its surroundings, there will be many research assistant robots, similar to the miniature Micro-Nova hopper, which is being developed by the University of Arizona, and special equipment such as the RASSOR excavator robot, which can dig in conditions close to weightlessness. The Russian-Chinese program also relies on swarms of mini-robots (groups of machines united by one task), jumping robots, and planetary rovers.

Over time, a controlled truck may appear at the base camp, which will deliver cargo throughout the Moon. The European Space Agency (ESA) is developing a multifunctional cargo module that will be able to release up to 1.5 tons of cargo from orbit (the research phase will end in 2022). Plans include installing a radio telescope in the “backyard,” writes NASA, referring to the far side of the Moon. It will be controlled remotely.

There are other ideas on how to develop infrastructure on the Moon – they relate to logistics issues. Thus, in October 2021, a group of scientists from the International Space University proposed using the reusable spacecraft SpaceX Lunar Starship, developed by Elon Musk’s company, and its HLS landing system as the foundation of a lunar base. The advantage of the project is that it will allow astronauts to relatively quickly (in 180 days) deploy a full-fledged habitable module with a volume of 2500 m³ (2.5 times larger than the ISS).

British architects Foster + Partners turned to 3D printing, which they tested on the ISS in 2014: the astronauts were sent an e-mail with a design for a socket wrench, which they printed on a printer. On the Moon, the printing material can be regolith, soil from the surface of the satellite. Technologies already make it possible to print objects in zero gravity; some lasers can be installed on lunar rovers and create universal elements for future designs from molten regolith.

It is possible that by 2050 there will be not only bases on the surface but also underground stations. In 2010, at the Lunar Conference in Beijing, a group of scientists presented plans for a multi-module station with a research center and a greenhouse for growing vegetables and grains. The regolith layer above the modules will protect people from solar radiation. The plan may be easier to implement if the station is built in caves and lava tubes that already exist on the Moon, which arose there as a result of ancient volcanic activity.

One such cave was discovered in 2017 by the Japanese SELENE apparatus; it was formed 3.5 billion years ago and has a height of 100 m and a depth of 50 km. The European Space Agency plans to explore other promising caves in the future using a spherical probe and a swarm of robots.

The Wall Street Journal also predicts the construction of roads (“the basic technology of humanity”), but this is likely to happen only for decades.

Mining

Launching 1 kg of materials into low Earth orbit costs an average of $10 thousand. NASA has estimated the costs of the Artemis program until 2025 at $93 billion, one launch of an Orion rocket from Earth will cost $4.1 billion. Therefore, for sustainable development on the Moon, bases must be close to self-sufficiency.

Thus, within the framework of existing programs, the concept of “in situ, resource utilization” (ISRU) – the extraction of resources on site – is being discussed. The first thing you will need on the Moon, and what is undoubtedly there, is water, energy, and building materials.

Water

When colonizing the Moon, water will become a key resource: it can be used for drinking, and irrigation in greenhouses, and can also be split into hydrogen and oxygen and used as fuel and life support.

Shackleton Crater at the South Pole of the Moon was not chosen by chance to host the station. Scientists believe that it contains water in the form of ice. The hypothesis was indirectly confirmed by data from the Indian orbiter Chandrayaan-1, which discovered ice in 40 craters with a diameter of 2–15 km, and data from Chandrayaan-2. The latter found ice mixed with soil in the Peary craters at the North Pole and Cabeo near the South Pole.

A crew of four only needs a small amount of water—a few tens of tons per year, says George Sowers, an aeronautical scientist at the Colorado School of Mines. According to the latest data, more than 600 million tons of water can be stored at the poles of the Moon.

True, this water must first be extracted. Temperatures in craters drop to -250°C, so it would take a lot of energy to melt the ice. The process can be simplified by giant mirrors located around the perimeter of the crater – they will direct sunlight to the bottom, after which astronauts will need to collect either water vapor or soft soil mixed with ice. The condensed water will be sent to a processing plant and split into hydrogen and oxygen. Ice can also be transported to the camp and melted in tanks.

Energy

In its program, NASA assigns a large role to the Sun. There may be peaks of eternal light at the South Pole that will keep solar panels running continuously. However, such spots are likely to be few and far between, so scientists are thinking about how to design Artemis systems to take into account the extremely cold lunar nights (−170 °C). They occur once a synodic month (the time from one new moon to another) and last, like a lunar day, 14 Earth days (but at certain points at the poles they can last less – than five days).

NASA, together with the US Department of Energy, is considering another permanent source of energy. Scientists have developed a compact ground-based power unit based on uranium with a power of 10 kW – this is enough to power several households on Earth, the agency writes. The small power plant could power elements of the camp for 10 years and provide greater flexibility in mission planning.

Regolith

If ice for fuel production still turns out to be unavailable, it will be possible to use the surface layer of loose lunar soil – regolith – to obtain water and other resources. It contains silica and metal oxides, and is 43% oxygen; according to NASA, 5% comes from water, and another 5% from volatile substances, including methane, ammonia, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Regolith is seen as a potential building material for 3D printers that early colonists might bring with them.

In the future, regolith may become a source of other resources, for example, helium-3 (3He), which falls on the satellite with the solar wind and accumulates over billions of years. It can be used as fuel in fusion reactors. It is rare on Earth and costs $16.6 million per kg. In the lunar regolith, according to rough estimates, there are about 1.1 million tons of it – enough to provide our planet with electricity for 10 thousand years. There are already plans to deliver 300 kg of the isotope to Earth by 2028.

Much research has been devoted to how to extract metals, water, and oxygen from regolith. But in addition to potential benefits, it also carries obvious harm. Regolith, which is similar in structure to sand, in low gravity (1.62 m/s² on the Moon versus 9.8 m/s² on Earth) easily comes off the surface from any impact and poses a danger to equipment and astronauts. Given that people plan to regularly land on the Moon in the same places, scientists are looking for a way to clear the camp area. One solution could be the deep sintering of regolith with other materials and the creation of landing platforms based on it. The same technology can be used in the future in road construction.

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Agriculture

In conditions of limited resources, it is most effective to create closed ecosystems in which plants will process organic waste and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Such a system, called the “Moon Palace,” is already being tested by Chinese scientists. In 2018, they completed an experiment in which two groups of students spent 370 days growing grains (including wheat), vegetables, strawberries, and mealworms for protein and eating a 4-day, 2,900-calorie diet. Summary: the ecosystem can support a comfortable life for the crew in a closed environment for a long time.

On the ISS they already eat lettuce and other greens grown in space. NASA has a Veggie program and similar programs that study how the absence of gravity affects plant growth and genetics. The long-term goal is to understand how to grow crops in the regolith. If this succeeds, small fruit trees may appear on the Moon.

What after colonization?

The basic goals of colonization will be the study of lunar topography, geomorphology, chemistry, geology, and the possibility of observing space. Many technologies that are being tested about lunar programs will find application on our planet: in energy, construction, transport, and resource extraction.

Once cities with their ecosystems appear on the Moon, vaguely reminiscent of those shown in the movie Ad Astra, humanity will most likely be ready for the next step. One of the ideas for the Artemis program is to turn the Moon into a technology testing ground and simulate the upcoming mission to Mars. Then the lunar bases will become the starting point for missions to the Red Planet – after all, this will cost several times less than launching from Earth.

Mehran Khan

Mehran Khan is a tech enthusiast who also has a great passion in writing. During his 8 years of career, he has covered news, features, and evergreen content on multiple platforms. Apart from keeping a close eye on emerging tech developments, he likes wasting time at the gym.