Forty-five years after man landed on the moon, more people than ever are looking at new ways to get back there.
Since Apollo 17 left the moon in December 1972, Earth’s nearest neighbor has largely phased out of public consciousness. In 2004, President George W. Bush pledged an American return to the lunar surface by 2020, and to use it as the “launching point for missions beyond.” When President Barack Obama took office in 2008, that flight plan was grounded. In recent years, however, interest has been ignited once more, with both world governments and private companies looking to get a slice of the moon.
Google has offered a $20 million Lunar XPrize to any team from around the world that can land a spacecraft on the moon, make it jump 500 meters and transmit HDTV images and video back to earth before a December 31, 2015 deadline. And in 2012, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich proposed a permanent United States Moon base that he claimed could apply for statehood under frontiersman laws established during the settling of the American West. What happened? Well, um…he lost.
Still, things haven’t looked this good for our lunar prospects since the Kennedy administration. Here are some of the more interesting ways that have been proposed to use Earth’s satellite in the future:
NASA is looking for gold in them thar hills of the moon—and by “gold” we mean water and other valuable resources that could help support future lunar expeditions and deep space missions to Mars and beyond. Though for years scientists thought the moon was a completely dry body, data taken in 2009 by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and later by the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, showed there was water on the lunar surface, particularly near the poles, that could be used by future human colonists.
But water on the moon is thought to be locked in dark craters, or bound chemically to lunar minerals. How can we mine this resource? One project, targeted for a 2018 launch, is the Resource Prospector Mission (RPM). The central piece of RPM is the RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction), a payload attached to a lunar rover that would search for water, oxygen, and metals like aluminum and titanium on the moon. This project will be a collaboration between NASA and commercial and international partners—particularly the Canadian Space Agency. But one of the remaining pieces of the puzzle is to find a company or space agency to make the landers that would deliver the lunar rover that would prospect for exploitable resources.
NASA is also planning to send astronauts back to lunar orbit to test technologies that may aid future deep-space missions, and perhaps revive plans for a permanent space station that would orbit the moon.
A lunar-orbiting station “was our objective under the Constellation program during the Bush Administration,” says Nantel Suzuki, NASA’s Robotic Lunar Lander program executive. “But now, our immediate focus is a 2017 robotic space launch to rendezvous with and collect specimens from a near-earth asteroid.”
The project, called NASA’s Next Giant Leap, is intended to capture and test asteroids with new technologies also planned for use in future human missions to Mars.
The astronauts will be carried on the Orion spacecraft, which is being built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will launch on NASA’s newest stat-of-the-art rocket, the Space Launch System, which will be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars.
“The launch in 2017 will prove out our ability to operate in the lunar vicinity,” says Suzuki.
The Orion spacecraft, launched by SLS, will return to Earth with samples. “This is a cheap way to do a precursor mission,” says NASA’s former Bill Larson, the former head of NASA’s ISRU program at the Kennedy Space Center. “It’s a way to not only learn a little bit more about the resources on the Moon, but test the technologies that we might need to go to Mars and try to assess in a similar fashion.”
Motivated by the Fukishima nuclear power plant disaster, Japan’s Shimizu Corporation has floated a plan for an enormous 12 mile-wide, 6,800 mile long “Luna Ring” of solar panels to be constructed on the moon’s surface.
“A shift from economical use of limited resources to the unlimited use of clean energy is the ultimate dream of all mankind,” the company says on its website.
The goal of the Luna Ring is to generate a continuous stream of power from the lunar equator, which receives constant exposure to the Sun. The device would harness power directly from the sun and then beam it straight to Earth with microwaves and lasers.
Shimizu’s design for the ring would stretch the full 6,800 miles around the moon’s circumference. The device would be constructed by robots that will “perform various tasks on the lunar surface, including ground leveling and excavation of hard bottom strata.”Shimuzu hopes to begin construction by 2035, and says the system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power to Earth around the clock. Measurements of global energy use show that humanity is consuming around 15-18 terawatts of power, so if realized, the Luna Ring could be a truly transformative piece of technology.
Hawaii is so played out—why not honeymoon on the lunar surface? Golden Spike, a Colorado-based private space flight company, is planning to haul paying customers to the Moon, but walking in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps doesn’t come cheap. For $1.55 billion, Golden Spike plans to offer two astronauts two moonwalks during surface visits of at least 36 hours, and the opportunity to bring back samples. Customers also have the option of paying $900 million to fly on week-long orbital missions. Space tourists and government scientists are equally welcome to apply.
“Our secret sauce is that we’re offering human planetary exploration for the price of robotic missions,” says Golden Spike’s President and CEO, Alan Stern. “With Golden Spike, a foreign space or science agency can use humans to do better exploration, better science, make a bigger world impact, and excite their populous for the same price that they can send a robot.”
In December, the company announced a partnership with Honeybee Robotics—a provider of robotic systems for space—to design unmanned rovers capable of enhancing the next human missions to the Moon. The company hopes to launch its first mission by the year 2020.
One of the wilder, and more controversial, proposals for the future of the moon is to store radioactive waste. Unlike spots on Earth, like the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, the moon doesn’t currently have any angry residents living nearby.
“The lunar surface is a sterile, hard radiation environment with great geological stability and no potential to pollute the Earth biome—a potential that is inevitable to all Earth sites due to groundwater,” Environmental engineer Sherwin Gormly told Space.com. “NIMBY politics don’t apply to the lunar surface at this time and can be avoided in the future by good planning and negotiation of beneficial use agreements,” he added.
Gormly envisions using suborbital planes to fly high up in the sky and shoot ICBMs carrying casks of radioactive waste, which would be guided to the lunar surface by the missile’s navigation. Ideally, we would aim to put our waste in a specific lunar crater, to make it all the easier to cordon off a specific contaminated area. Future moon colonists may even want to process this waste and make use of it.
“This material is a political liability today and a resource tomorrow,” Gormly told Space.com.