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30 November 2017

The Reconquest of the Moon

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Humanity wants to return to the Moon, 45 years after the last astronaut stepped off it. With the ending of some of its space programs and the dismantling of the International Space Station (ISS) on the horizon (scheduled starting from 2024), NASA intends to focus on the Moon for its next steps in the exploration of the universe. In addition, space agencies from countries such as India, China and Japan, as well as various aerospace companies, will launch projects in the coming years to send both crewed spacecraft and rovers to search for mineral resources on the surface of the satellite. Even the big technology firms have part of their interests there.

NASA intends to focus on the Moon for its next steps in the exploration of the universe. Credit: Gregory H. Revera

NASA announced in September that it would join forces with the Russian space agency— Roscosmos—to build a space station in lunar orbit in the middle of the next decade. It will serve as a departure point for manned missions to Mars and other areas of the Solar System, where astronauts will be trained and technologies will be tested.

However, this plan has been criticised by some experts. “If the ultimate goal is to go to the surface of the Moon, it doesn’t make sense to build a station, which is very expensive, on its periphery,” says Bernard Foing, director of the International Lunar Exploration Group of the European Space Agency (ESA). For aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, it is “NASA’s worst plan yet.”

Zubrin argues that the objectives of the new base could be carried out in the ISS and that “all scientific interest lies on the surface of the satellite.” Foing adds that the project might be “a quick way to make money” for companies in the sector. “Many have developed modules for the ISS and will now have an opportunity to charge more to adapt them to the lunar station.”

The tech gurus heading for the Moon

Google has also set its sights on the Moon and is offering 20 million dollars to the first private organization that manages to place a robot on its surface and send back images before 31 March 2018. The favourite teams for the Google Lunar X Prize are TeamIndus (from India) and Hakuto (from Japan)—who will travel together in an Indian PSLV rocket— and SpaceIL (from Israel), which will be launched by a SpaceX rocket.

SpaceX, owned by the mogul Elon Musk, also intends to make the first tourist trip to the satellite by the end of 2018. And its rival, United Launch Alliance, announced a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace to place a habitable module in lunar orbit in the next decade, while Blue Origin is talking about cargo transport to the Moon with its New Glenn rockets, starting in 2020.

A new space race

The projects destined for the Moon are proliferating not only in the private sector, but also from the national space agencies.

After having successfully placed its Jade Rabbit rover on the lunar surface, which operated between 2013 and 2016, China intends to launch an orbiter in 2018 that will reach the far side of the satellite and obtain samples of its geology. The Chinese space agency also plans to conduct experiments there with a low frequency radio telescope. “The far side of the Moon is the quietest place in the Solar System in terms of radio frequency. From there you can analyse the most fragile signals coming from the universe and study the formation of the first stars and galaxies,” explains Foing.

India also wants to go to the moon next year and Japan has plans to send a rover in 2020 and a crewed mission in 2030.

3D illustration of lunar village. Credit: ESA

Is this a new space race? “Yes, but it’s different from the first. Now there is a mixture of competition and collaboration. It’s like the Olympic Games,” answers the ESA expert. “We have the opportunity to develop new technologies and open the doors to small countries that may not have the necessary budget to carry out individual projects.”

In line with this collaborative trend, the European agency is working with the United States in the construction of the thrusters and the life support system of the Orion capsules, in which they intend to send four astronauts around the Moon in the next four years. In collaboration with Russia, ESA will launch a mission to land at an explored area at the Moon’s south pole and study the composition of its ice to obtain water and other materials to produce fuels and oxygen.

Exploit mineral resources

ESA’s most ambitious plan, however, is to build a lunar village, initially created by humans and robots, until 2030 when a group of astronauts will inhabit the Moon permanently. “We can study how to bring terrestrial life to a hostile world, without an atmosphere, but which has resources,” says Foing.

In addition to frozen water, the Earth’s natural satellite has oxygen and elements that are hard to find on our planet. An example is the isotopes of helium-3, non-existent on Earth, which could be used as fuel for clean nuclear fusion. Ten tons of that material would be enough to power all of Europe for one year, experts estimate.

Prototype of space station in lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

The ESA also proposes extracting water from the lunar soil and delivering it to the ISS. “Currently, taking 1 kilo of water to the station costs 50,000 dollars, so the facility recycles all the water consumed there. If we imported the water from the Moon, we would spend only 20,000 dollars per kilo,” says Foing.

The existence of these mineral resources is the main argument of the enthusiasts of lunar exploration when asked about the missions to Mars, which the efforts and budgets of the scientific community and the space industry have focused on in the last decade. “The science of Mars is very important, but it is harder to reach the red planet and we are not ready. Sending humans to Mars is going to cost 100 times more than going to the Moon and the risks are very high,” says the head of ESA’s Lunar Exploration.

And why come back after almost five decades? “We now have a high-tech industrial revolution. It’s the moment to invest once again in the Moon,” he says. “Now, in addition, we can go to stay.”

Joana Oliveira

@joanaoliv

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