Illustration by Maciej Rębisz
Next year, 2019, astronaut Matthias Maurer expects to walk on the surface of the Moon — but without the hassles of a rocket flight, zero-gravity nausea and a risky landing. Instead he’ll stroll close to home in a leafy meadow near Cologne, Germany, which is set to host the largest Moon mock-up ever made. On a pit of artificial lunar dust covering more than 1,000 square metres, Maurer and other scientists will be attached to crane-and-pulley systems that allow them to leap as if experiencing the Moon’s weaker gravity, and work under adjustable lamps that simulate lighting at different lunar sites. Sometimes, they will retreat to lunar-style living quarters: an airlock-connected module the size of a shipping container.
It’s an exciting playground for testing lunar technology, says Maurer, who is a project manager for the multimillion-euro facility. Called LUNA, the mock-up is taking shape outside the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, with funding from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). But at 48 years old, Maurer doesn’t know whether he will ever put his skills to use on the genuine article. “Hopefully I will make it before retirement. Technically, I believe it’s feasible that I will still walk on the Moon,” he says.
Maurer’s optimism isn’t entirely outlandish. He was only two the last time someone visited the Moon for real: US astronaut Eugene Cernan, in the last mission of NASA’s Apollo programme. No space agencies have yet committed money to send people back. But, partly as a result of changing political priorities, momentum for human return to the Moon is growing. Rather than rerun the Apollo missions, space agencies are slowly warming to the idea of establishing a sustainable settlement.
Researchers relish the idea of a base for conducting experiments on the Moon and as a way to trial technologies for heading to Mars. Private firms, however, are increasingly tempted by the possibility of mining oxygen and hydrogen — which power rockets — from lunar ice. If that does pan out, then the Moon could become a refuelling station, radically reducing the expense of space travel.
“Water is the oil of space, and there’s mounting evidence that it’s there in economically viable deposits,” says George Sowers, an aeronautical scientist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and previously chief scientist at United Launch Alliance, a firm in Centennial, Colorado, that provides launch services for the US government.
Space agencies are generally reluctant to predict a timeline for a crewed Moon base — in part, because the goal lies well outside their budget horizons, but also because it requires businesses to provide much of the money for the various stages involved. But ESA’s director-general, Jan Wörner, has for years talked about multiple countries and companies collaborating in a semi-permanent settlement, which he calls a ‘Moon village’. China’s National Space Administration has also been quoted in state media saying that a Moon base is its goal, although it has not announced when that might happen.
Lunar exploration prospects gained a boost last December, when a US presidential directive told NASA to switch its sights from exploring asteroids to returning humans to the Moon. NASA has since asked companies to develop lander technology and has outlined plans to request billions of dollars over the next five years for new programmes to support lunar exploration, leading to eventual human return. “It’s a fairly radical change of direction,” says Sowers. And this October, European engineering firm Airbus launched a contest called the Moon Race, with supporters that include ESA and the US spaceflight firm Blue Origin, which promises to fund companies to develop key technologies for the sustainable development of the Moon.
In the next few years, the only missions to touch down on the Moon will be robotic: China and India will launch probes in the next three months, and Russia has one scheduled within the next five years. But NASA, ESA and the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Canada all support the idea of building a space station in orbit around the Moon by the mid-2020s. (In his 2019 budget request, US President Trump proposed that NASA spend US$2.7 billion on the project over the next 5 years.) That orbiter could provide a base from which to make short, multi-week crewed trips to the Moon’s surface in a pressurized rover — which Maurer calls the “camper-van solution”. Finally, a settlement could follow. “I think that 20 years is a realistic time frame for a lunar surface infrastructure of some sort, either inhabited by or tended by humans,” says James Carpenter, strategy officer for human and robotic exploration at ESA in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
Researchers have long explored ways to harvest lunar resources, but more in hope than expectation. Now, they are ramping up lunar settlement technology with genuine anticipation that their work might be put into action. While Maurer and others at ESA’s LUNA centre practise living on and mining the Moon, others are working on how to grow food and build radiation-proof shelters.
At a July meeting at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk to prepare for future human Moon missions, more than 250 specialists from academia, mining, metallurgy, construction and architecture pitched their ideas. “If you ran the same workshop five years ago, it may have only been a handful of people,” says Aidan Cowley, science adviser at the European Astronaut Centre. “The appetite has really increased.” Although a Moon base might still never happen, Earth-bound preparation for lunar living is well under way.
Source: NatureResearch October, 2018