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A moon mission for the 21st century

by Angeliki Kapoglou | @Capoglou

Today marks the 49th anniversary of the first Moon landing. For those associated with the Apollo Program, and many others watching around the world, the sight on television of Neil A. Armstrong stepping on the lunar surface bordered on the miraculous. What had seemed a remote possibility a decade earlier had become a reality.

Neil Armstrong On The Moon. Photo courtesy of NASA

Apollo 11 was a geo-political and technological mission. It set a clear and ambitious objective: to put a man on the Moon and bring him back safely. There was also a concrete timeline — get there before the end of the decade — 1960s. The mission resulted in success but it also led to many unexpected spinoffs that would not have emerged without this massive engagement around a bold, science and innovation led objective. Indeed many of these spin offs — such as the integrated circuit — would have arisen even if Armstrong had never set foot on the Moon (as shown in Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State).

This process of systemic cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, and cross sector innovation that Apollo stimulated was every bit as important as the mission itself. Apollo required investments and innovation not just in aerospace but also across multiple sectors (computation, materials, medicine, biology, microbiology, geology, food, electronics, and communications). Without new materials, for example, the mission would not have worked. It inspired children to dream about becoming astronauts; it led to poor kids in Iowa launching rockets — reinvigorating STEM subjects in schools; required researchers from various disciplines and sectors to cooperate to solve problems in a bottom-up manner; stimulated new types of risk-taking in many different sub-projects, of which many, of course, failed. And, more nebulously but just as important, it was Apollo that gave people the perspective that we live on a fragile planet that we need to take care of. The first views of Earth from the Moon — one of NASA’s crowning achievements — forever transformed the way we see ourselves as human beings.

View of Earth July 21, 1969. Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Apollo was inspirational, and much can be learned about the importance of setting clear, bold goals, while allowing bottom-up experimentation to contribute to the overall success. For example, my favourite aspirational mission statement would be:

A team of people to survive on the Moon for two years without need for resupply, while locally generating all their consumables (water, food, oxygen)

Two parameters make this seemingly audacious mission statement tractable and affordable today.

1. Water on the Moon

Over the past ten years an increasingly complex view of water inside and on the surface of the Moon has emerged. A mission called Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) recorded evidence of water in 650 mass spectra gathered in the thin atmosphere above the Moon’s surface. Moreover, Chandrayaan-1 discovered more than 40 permanently darkened craters near the Moon’s north pole that are hypothesized to contain an estimated 600 million metric tonnes (1.3 trillion pounds) of water-ice. NASA also had a payload onboard Chandrayaan-1, called M3, for “Moon Mineralogy Mapper” which looked at the mineralogy and discovered that there’s a small amount of water that is created with interactions with the solar wind that sits on the surface of the Moon in certain places.

Apart from measurements from space, we have also in situ measurements. In 2009, NASA crashed a piece of a Centaur rocket (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite LCROSS) into one of the permanently-shadowed craters at the poles and measured what came off. Within the plume of the material thrown up by the impact, the LCROSS spectrometer detected about 150 kilograms of water. The LCROSS mission demonstrated definitively that water is one of the things that is hidden in those poles.

If the Moon has enough water… future explorers might be able to use it as drinking water or to convert it into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel or oxygen to breathe.

We still however don’t know for sure what the source of the water is or how to extract and utilise it. Last February, a new analysis of data found evidence that the Moon’s water is widely distributed across the surface and is not confined to a particular region or type of terrain. These findings could help researchers understand the origin of the Moon’s water and how easy it would be to use as a resource. The use of locally sourced materials, often referred to as In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) is expected to be a key enabling element for the sustainability of future human lunar exploration. If the Moon has enough water, and if it’s reasonably convenient to access, future explorers might be able to use it as drinking water or to convert it into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel or oxygen to breathe. As you can understand the lunar water discovery has sticky questions, and so renewed lunar exploration efforts are needed to deepen our knowledge of the Earth–Moon system.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has a strong interest in testing and maturing lunar in-situ resource utilisation technologies to produce drinkable water or breathable oxygen in support of future sustainable human Moon missions. At the moment, ESA is exploring the feasibility of conducting a mission by utilising lunar services, such as lunar communications and payload delivery to the Moon, developed by commercial partners. These capabilities are already being developed by the private sector and should be available to ESA by 2025.

Unlike the missions of the past, commercial partnerships are playing a growing role in the exciting ESA vision for space exploration. More importantly, focusing on setting ambitious exploration goals; and allowing flexibility for how those goals can be achieved, has the potential to unlock entrepreneurial energy and lead to unexpected innovations.

Apollo 11: East Crater Panorama. Photo courtesy of NASA

2. Economic interest

Apart from the burning scientific questions around lunar resources, discussions about lunar exploration have become hard to avoid due to surging investment from private and public actors hoping to land on the lunar surface within the next two to five years.

For example, Jeff Bezos, now the richest person in modern history, liquidates $1 billion USD of Amazon stock every year to pay for his rocket company, Blue Origin. Blue Origin has on the drawing board a lunar lander called Blue Moon, capable of delivering five tons of payload to the lunar surface. Recently, Bezos also laid out his vision for a lunar settlement. Blue Origin targets a Moon landing by 2023 as an early step toward lunar settlement and recently received a one year contract from NASA (together with nine other companies) to advance knowledge needed to collect, process and use space-based resources on the Moon and beyond.

Another key player is China. Very recently, China launched the first ever lunar communications relay satellite, a necessary precursor to the planned Chang’e-4 soft-landing on the lunar far side late in the year. The follow up mission, Chang’e-5 (planned for 2019) is a pioneering and technically complex mission in which the probe will land, collect samples, return to a docking in lunar orbit, and then come back to Earth. China’s lunar exploration programme is considered to be intrinsically linked to the current robotics and artificial intelligence hyper development in China and the transformation of China into a technological cutting-edge world power. It is worth noting that Chang’e-5 will also set the stage for China’s potential fourth phase of exploration that bridges the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program and the human spaceflight programme that results in an International Lunar Science and Research Station.

However, there are more credible players in Asia with near term Moon plans: India’s second mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan-2, aims to launch by the end of 2018. The Japanese government, announced plans to establish a nearly billion-dollar fund to support the development of space startups in the country and iSpace, a Japanese company raised more than $90 million from investors including Japan Airlines, Suzuki Motor Corp. and telecom giant KDDI Corp. The Tokyo-based startup plans to test its lunar delivery vehicle in 2019, by orbiting the Moon, and to start landing rovers in 2020.

Mexico could be the first Latin American country to conquer the Moon

Smaller countries are also aiming for the Moon! Mexico will send in 2019 eight small self-organised robots to build a solar panel on the lunar surface. The project, called Autonomous Assembly of Structures on the Lunar Surface, is supported by Astrobotic Technology and financed with Sectoral Funds of Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt), thus Mexico could be the first Latin American country to conquer the Moon. In Israel, the nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) announced last week that a robotic lunar landing mission is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida this December. If all goes as planned, the craft would attempt a touchdown on the Moon on February 13, 2019, with hopes of burnishing Israel’s reputation as a small nation with otherworldly high-tech ambitions. Approximately $88 million has been invested in the spacecraft’s development and construction, mostly from private donors.

Similar lunar landing ambitions are also shared by other companies, like the Part Time Scientists in Germany. The company has partnered with the car maker Audi to produce and deliver two “quattro rovers” to the Moon in 2019. Now the team has also partnered with Vodafone and Nokia to create a Moon-based communications network using 4G LTE to bring high-definition video of the Moon to those of us here on Earth. The energy-efficient Ultra Compact Network solution weighs less than 1 kg. Other companies like Astrobotics, Moon Express and Masten Space in the US and Team Indus in India are also aiming for the Moon in the next two years.

Our generation’s lunar exploration efforts will likely look different than Apollo. There will be private and non space actors, and many emerging space faring nations at the forefront. Making any real headway in the coming decade, will require building an unprecedented level of collaboration between leaders in the private and public sectors, unused to working together.

But at their heart these lunar exploration efforts offer an opportunity to engage with universal questions about the evolution of humanity, civilisation, and life as we know it. These are questions that transcend borders, culture, religion, and values. 49 years after the first Moon landing, there are plenty of reasons to return to Earth’s giant, dusty satellite—only this time to stay.

Angeliki Kapoglou is an ESA-funded PhD student at UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, currently based at the Human and Robotic Exploration Strategy Department at ESTEC.

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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel