COLONIZING THE MOON
by PAREENA WAGLE
A lunar colony is arguably the next logical step for mankind. It is our nearest stellar neighbor. One attraction is the comparatively abundant supply of Helium-3 on the moon, which is an ideal fuel for fusion reactors. Getting people to the Moon the first time was a skirmish in the Cold War — NASA’s percentage of the federal budget during the Apollo program came very close to matching the percentage for the Department of Defense. That did prove that an outpost on the Moon would be possible but it would be a huge engineering problem requiring enormous amounts of money. A self-sustaining colony would easily be another order of magnitude more expensive.
To date, the USA, Russia, Japan, India, China, and the European Space Agency have sent robots to either orbit the Moon or land on it or both. They have done that for scientific research and — probably — the research for establishing outposts and eventually colonies on the Moon.
The problems for developing self-sustaining colony would be power during the day span and night span (about 14 days each), protection from meteorites and solar flares and the normal background radiation of the universe, developing the mining equipment and the refining process to work the ore and the manufacturing facilities to use the material produced, developing the export processes and equipment, plus bootstrapping the infrastructure for all that and finding customer for those exports: colonies on Mars, in free space, the asteroids, . . . anywhere in the solar system.
All life-supporting supplies would have to come from Earth, until some time in the far distant future when the Moon colony may become self-reliant.
One barrier to Moon colonization is the lack of an electromagnetic barrier akin to the Van Allen radiation belt which protects the Earth from cosmic rays and x-rays. There is also no atmosphere which would attenuate ultraviolet radiation which would potentially cause genetic mutations in anyone working on the surface of the Moon.
So, any Moon colony would have to be built underground, from small pieces delivered from Earth, with inhabitants and air and food delivered from Earth.
The biggest obstacle would be surviving the Lunar Night. This period, roughly two Earth-weeks long, is intensely cold and dark. It would sap your habitation of heat, while providing none of the obvious means (i.e. Solar energy) for replenishing it. The Apollo manned missions stayed on the surface only a few days at a time, all during the early lunar morning when temperatures were moderating between bitter nighttime lows and daytime highs of around 250° F (121° C). One day, settlers will live day and night on the moon, but they’ll have to do so without vital solar energy and heat during 14 days of darkness.
We could just use radioactive heat. Power cells that contain radioactive plutonium, like those featured in the movie The Martian, have been a staple on long-term missions to the outer solar system, where they’re used to not only keep electronics warm but also to provide power for probes far from the sun. The heat from the decay of plutonium kept China’s Yutu warm and continues to power and warm NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover.
Unfortunately, this method may not be sustainable on a larger scale. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) are looking for a better solution using the capacity of moondust to absorb and store energy when hit by sunlight, then releasing this energy during the lunar night.
The lunar night will be shorter if the base is stationed at the North or South Pole. “There are many good reasons to build such a base at the poles, but there are other factors to consider than simply the hours of sunlight,” says Edmund Trollope, a spacecraft operations engineer for Telespazio VEGA Deutschland.
Thermoelectric generators could be used to provide energy during the night cycle: while they have low efficiency they also have low maintenance issues because they have no moving parts. Alternatively, Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs) offer greater efficiency, and use a highly compact fuel source. The base would need to be shielded from radiation while allowing the heat transfer. The logistics of supplying the generator with a suitable radioactive isotope are challenging: safety risks during launch from Earth would have to be addressed, as well as political and security issues with the supply.
Nuclear (fission) reactors could alternatively be used, although the issues listed above would still be a problem.
Once developed, fusion reactors could also be viable, given the relatively abundant supply of Helium-3. Alternatively, batteries — such as Lithium Ion — could also be used, provided sufficient solar energy is generated for the two-week night cycle.
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Tafheem is a space enthusiast working in the field of astrobiology and is studying self sustaining environments in outer space. Together with a dynamic research team, he is a establishing a space learning platform. Also he is working towards creating first of its kind subject specific interactive educational gaming modules in various Indian schools.
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