Moon colonization aerospace engineering challenge

Tech leaders and governments from all over the world take Moon colonization seriously lately. What are the risks, what is the plan?

Moon colonization as a new aerospace engineering challenge

In short, is Moon worth colonizing? How much money will it cost, what about the estimated returns? Here’s a short review of what to expect in the coming years in terms of space expansion.

23.11.19

It was not so long ago, somewhere about the 60s of the previous century, when the American dream to establish space dominance and keep launching regular manned flights crashed. NASA’s space vessels turned out incapable of the mission at that time.

On the other hand, the whole spacecraft construction industry gained invaluable experience at the cost of human lives, and now that we have made quite a lot of advancements in all the domains that concern spacecraft (computation, metallurgy, engineering), it is time to think about a second serious attempt.

The Apollo program is in the past. The future, however, is the Artemis program .

Space tourism era is nigh

Traveling in space is not an easy feat. The lighthearted way it is described in the novels by Douglas Adams certainly does not reflect the actual gravity of the situation. The talks about space tourism go on and on and, in fact, real people are ready to depart on such a trip… the only thing that holds an average regular guy like myself is its price: ranging from 70 to 750 million US dollars per person, speaking of the Moon flight.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson would just laugh at that idea: there is no popular demand for space travels, and neither there is a solid technological background for it.

Early Moon colonization challenges

Considering the peculiarity of the Moon’s geography, it was agreed at the International meeting in January 2018 that the best spot to build a future colony is at the south pole . The proximity of polar cap water gives lots of possibilities and increases the overall colony’s viability; almost everlasting sunlight provides an alternative energy source. Resource reconnaissance is still required to discover mineral and ore deposits if any.

Another option that has a chance of being implemented is inhabiting a lunar tube .

Every space colony simulation game nerd can assume that a hypothetical settlement on the Moon has to deal with a few issues. A constant supply of the following resources is required:

Clean air. Both fiction writers and scientists of the 20 th century suggested algae for air production and purification. The task, then, is to keep algae alive.

Water. As I said before, a preferable colony’s situation is close to the ice, so whenever such a need arises, it would be possible to melt and purify it either with the help of filtration media or through boiling.

Food. Most discussions revolve around underground base setup. It means that the utilization of greenhouses on the Moon is highly unlikely because of the harsh conditions on the surface: it is subject to meteor storms, extreme temperatures ranging from about 107°C to -153°C, and highly intensive UV radiation. Because the underground base is usually viewed as the most viable, any vegetation (and people!) originating from Earth would require artificial sunlight .

Energy. Solar panels on the surface still fall into “a very hesitant maybe” category because of their constant exposure to various mechanical hazards. A simpler option is to bury a nuclear reactor under the surface, with a radiator spiking high enough to regulate the reactor’s temperature. Energy provision is crucial to run all basic operations and maintain viable temperature conditions for colony inhabitants: even if temperatures under the Moon’s surface are stable and stay at approximately -20°C, constant heating must be on.

Besides, the following tasks must be carried out periodically:

Maintenance. All the imaginable systems have parts that endure the most pressure and thus break more often. You can’t keep replacing them endlessly unless they are being produced somewhere nearby. All the replaceable parts have to be manufactured on the Moon itself so that a colony is fully sustainable.

Resource extraction. The said production of parts and mechanisms requires corresponding resources that never just lay around in pretty ingots. The goal of a self-sustaining colony is efficient in-situ resource utilization. Resources must first be located on the spot because scanning from the orbit does not provide enough data on their location and quality. Excavation, extraction, and processing go next.

Transportation. Either to ensure the circulation of materials inside a colony, between colonies, surface to orbit, or planet to planet, unique technologies will be tried for the first time. For example, electromagnetic rail gun, to send cargo from the Moon into space so that it could be picked up by a spacecraft.

Construction. Modern 3D printers are fit of solving most of the construction tasks the Moon astronomers will face. Building material can be derived from the Moon soil itself.

In other words, a whole colony, or a set of colonies, has to become fully self-sustaining for the sake of the settlers’ safety and lesser colony maintenance costs from Earth. Like any startup, a colony won’t become profitable for a relatively long time. It is impossible to make a correct guess at this point, how much exactly. Decades or, maybe, centuries will pass until it becomes autonomous and begins to “trade” with Earth.

Jeff Bezos considers a Moon mission more reasonable than a straight shot at Mars like Elon Musk suggests. He has a point: Moon is a lot closer, after all. Besides, it might serve a training ground for more complex missions. NASA views Artemis program as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. Perhaps, Mars mission will be a stepping stone to the mission to Europa , a Jupiter’s frozen ocean moon.

Moon colonization economic viability

Now, let’s break down the actual composition of Moon’s regolith. NASA has the samples of it, taken during the first manned mission to the Moon.

The point of particular interest is the presence of Helium-3 isotope, potentially useful in fission reactors for its incredible power-generation capability: carried to the Moon’s surface from the Sun over billions of years, it has been accumulating in the upper layers all along. It was 120 times more expensive than gold as of 2006.

Another interesting element is Tritium. See, the Iron Sky movie was not a pure science fiction comedy in this regard: they mention lots of Tritium on the Moon as well. Beside these two elements that are very rare on Earth, the regular Hydrogen, Helium, Carbon, and Nitrogen must have made it to the Moon’s surface from the Sun as well.

The infographics show that regolith is mostly made of Oxygen (42%) with significant traces of Iron, Aluminum, Magnesium, and Calcium.

Researchers are quite sure that further exploration will reveal valuable deposits of platinum group metals (commonly present in asteroids) and other elements, rare on Earth, either in the Moon’s crust or on the surface.

See the full review on Lunar resources by Ian A. Crowford. He is really skeptic about Helium-3 because the whole producing infrastructure on the Moon and the whole consuming infrastructure on Earth will become useless the moment Helium-3 is gone, which is inevitably going to happen sooner or later. But he believes that even discarding Helium-3, geological exploration is absolutely necessary and will turn of profitable in the long run.

Just think of it: a group of international partners or a certain state government that has the upper hand in space exploration and succeeds in turning it into a profitable endeavor will develop at exponential rate leaving all the competitor far behind. Good luck to the rest of humanity dealing with such a cosmic monopoly!