The space race is on again! Except this time, it isn’t the US and the Soviet Union pushing back the boundaries of science to further their standing in the Cold War, but an international scientific collaboration between Europe and Russia that may lead to the eventual establishment of a permanent moonbase at the south pole of the Sun’s glowing silver nocturnal counterpart. The missions will continue where the explorations of the Soviet Union in the 1970s left off, and will begin with the launch of Luna 27 in five years, according to the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, and the European Space Agency.
What’s Out There?
For decades, lunar exploration has been on hold, with NASA and other world space agencies preferring to spend their limited budgets on missions closer to home, like the development of the International Space Station. But with recent discoveries about the nature of Moon dust and with space tech getting ever cheaper, there has been a renewed interest in travel to our satellite. The major interest that both Europe and Russia has – and probably the US as well – is whether there is sufficient water and minerals available to help support a permanent settlement, as well as enough oxygen available to make fuel.
This is only even a possibility because the environment on the dark side of the moon is so different, with the extremely low temperatures creating icy prisons for water and other chemicals that have been shielded from the heat of the Sun. If it’s truly the case that these chemicals are easily exploitable, then as well as being an ideal place to conduct low-gravity experiments and make astronomical observations, a moon base could become a jumping-off point for further exploration of the solar system. China has even shown interest in lunar mining to produce valuable resources such as Helium-3.
Fly Me To the Moon
There are many dangers and challenges involved in creating a lunar settlement. First and foremost among them is getting there in the first place, which is both a dangerous and an expensive proposition. The aim of the Europe-Russia collaboration is to minimize these potential costs as much as possible, with the initial idea being to use robots to determine whether it’s worth sending humans there at all. Great news for the budding robotics technicians and PLC programmers among us – there’s going to be a lot more work available on this kind of tech in the coming years.
The advantage of using robots is of course that they don’t require oxygen or water to work, although any robots on the Moon’s dark side will find it difficult to use solar energy to power their circuitry. The initial missions will also use many other new technologies, like a new type of landing apparatus that uses on-board cameras for navigation and a laser guidance system to precisely target a good landing spot based on intelligent terrain-sensing algorithms. Europe is also providing the drill that will be used to dig down below the cold surface and extract potentially hard, icy samples for analysis, as well as an onboard miniaturized laboratory.
Assuming that everything goes according to plan and the appropriate minerals are available and easily extractable, the real hard work begins. First up, what kind of damage might structural engineers expect a vacuum to do to materials? Severe temperature variations, high outward forces form pressurized habitats, and material brittleness at very low temperatures are just some of the potential issues. High energy efficiency will be required, with a certain thickness of material necessary to both provide insulation and protect settlers from cancer-causing cosmic rays. The actual construction would also be very difficult: not only would the low-gravity environment cause some problems when moving around, but the lack of an atmosphere would increase dynamic friction around drilling tools, generating huge amounts of heat, and causing drill bits and rock to fuse. Also, the ejected dust would cover everything, and cause untold health hazards when breathed in.
That’s not even touching the surface of the dangers that humans would be in from depressurization, or the effects on the body of long stints in low gravity, or the possibility of an asteroid strike. Despite these all-too-possible hazards, Europe and Russia seem set on making a space-faring civilization possible, and this is the first step to getting us there. To infinity and beyond!