Living on the moon

Ken Tapping, February 15, 2012

In the sky this week…

  • Jupiter and Venus continue to dominate the southwestern sky in the evenings.
  • Mars rises around 8 p.m. and Saturn at 11 p.m.
  • The Moon will be New on February 21.

Over the last year or two, there have been renewed discussions about a return to the Moon and even having a permanently manned base there. While this is certainly technically feasible, the big question is — why might we want one? The idea of it being a 21st century frontier outpost has a romantic ring to it, but what else could this base do for us? One vision that has been around ever since we started thinking about space travel is that a moon base would be the jumping off point for space exploration. At the moment space missions start at the surface of the Earth, which makes things extra difficult. Firstly, we have the Earth’s gravity to fight. Secondly, we have the atmosphere to deal with. Travelling through it at supersonic speed means we have to fight air drag as well as gravity. We need streamlined shells and casings, which add to the overall weight of the spacecraft. Because of weight and drag considerations, we cannot make these casings too large. Consequently, many spacecraft have to fold up into small spaces. Space missions have been degraded or have failed completely because solar panels, antennas or instruments failed to unfold properly. The Earth’s gravity and the additional weight to be carried make launchers large and launches violent. In the few minutes needed to get into space astronauts and equipment get a savage shaking.

Launching from the Moon would be a lot easier. The gravity is only a sixth as strong as Earth’s, and there is no atmosphere. Without atmospheric drag spacecraft need no streamlining or additional casings, and with no wind to blow them off, the panels, antennas and instrument booms can be already deployed and tested before launch.

On the Moon, almost the whole electromagnetic spectrum would be available for astronomy, and the vacuum environment would make many physics research instruments easier to assemble and operate. The Apollo astronauts demonstrated that people can work on the surface of the Moon for hours at a time. However, they did not live there. Lunar settlers would need a lot more room, privacy, amenities, and a shirtsleeve environment.

One disadvantage of space stations is that, apart from abundantly available solar energy, everything else (i.e. air, water, food and other materials) has to be either lifted from the surface of the Earth, or possibly brought 400,000 km from the Moon. There is evidence that water and oxygen can be obtained from lunar rocks, and many raw materials could be mined locally.

Downside of living on the Moon is that there is no atmosphere or magnetic field to screen out harmful solar and cosmic radiation, and there are severe daily temperature variations. Fortunately, these problems can be mitigated by living ten metres or so underground. Many Canadian cities have adopted this solution to avoid our challenging climate, so we should find dealing with the Moon base issue not that unusual. There are lots of challenges, and it won’t happen for a few years yet, but there will be a moon base one day.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton,  BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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