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The renaissance of the Moon

Last update 13th October 2017, by Stephanie Warren



The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!

LARRY NIVEN



The last time an astronaut walked on the Moon was on December 13, 1972, and apart from the occasional lander, robot or orbiter there has been nothing really big happening since. Abandoned for over 40 years, the Moon is now back in vogue; but why? Much has been achieved in the years following the landings on the Moon, but manned missions have only reached the ISS and no further. Much has happened since 1972, and there now seem to be a change of attitude about a possible Moon settlement, and this is being driven by three economical and long term objectives; deep space exploration, mineral mining and space tourism.


A change in attitude towards space exploration is taking place. We’ve not so much reached a crossing but a ledge where we either stay where we are and accomplish, successfully, the same things again and again, or we jump to a new frontier. We’ve accomplish much with the International Space Station (ISS), but there seem to now be an expectation that more should be done. Many robots have been sent to various destinations in our Solar System and now, more than ever, we’re feeling the limitations of remote science. To really gain more knowledge, humans need to go to those faraway places.


As well as having a terrain that is not great for a hike, the surface pressure (the pressure exerted by the mass of the atmosphere on the surface of the planet) also adds to the difficulty as it is 90 times that of Earth. It’s the equivalent of being almost 1 km (0.62 mi) under sea level on Earth, except that you would need a marine research submersible to reach and survive such depth.


Beyond going past our current achievements, as mentioned above, there are three main reasons for going back to the Moon. The first one is to help develop a deep space program; especially one that would take humans to Mars, as it is more hospitable than the Moon. Our current level of technology and knowledge is not sufficient to go to Mars yet, so the Moon would be a stepping stone to longer journeys, as such a place to develop and test new technologies, takeoffs and landings in new environments, even establishing refueling stages for long term missions. It also has something in common with Mars … dust! So if we can make it work on the Moon, we probably will make it work on Mars. Should there be a problem we wouldn’t be too far from Earth and help. The trip to the Moon is only three days, while a trip to Mars is at least 7 months (a very long time to wait for help!).


The second reason is the mining of precious and/or rare minerals. The Moon is now looked upon as a new source of wealth. Claims have been made about the abundance of Rare Earth Elements (REEs), water and helium 3 (used in medical imaging for example); those claims are however contested, and if anything, we need to go to the Moon to know for sure.


The 1967 Outer Space Treaty limits however the property rights over celestial bodies. It even states that “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes “.Water on the Moon, of which the quantity is still contested, would mean that we could produce fuel for deep space missions, turning the Moon into a refueling station.


The last objective is to use the Moon as a tourist destination. This is another way of creating wealth but also a way to help bring down the cost of travelling to the Moon. There are already options being explored. The first one would be to send people on a one week trip to, around and back from the Moon. No landing involved but space travel nonetheless. It would probably be advertised as ‘Come and see the dark side of the Moon’ (they would probably offer cookies too….Star Wars fan only!). The second option would be to actually stay on the Moon, and to make this happen a certain level of infrastructure would probably be able to be in place on the surface. This is probably quite a few years in the future.


After years of neglect, the Moon is back in fashion with many projects underway. This time though it’s not just states that are involved in the ‘race’ for the Moon but private companies too. All this is fueling interesting technological developments which can only become even more interesting once the projects have reached the Moon. It could be that reaching farther into our Solar System will happen at a faster rate once we’ve mastered reaching for and living on the Moon.



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