A lunar base

You may be wondering whether we have the ability to have a permanent base on the Moon. In the late 1960s and early 70s twelve men set foot on the Moon. Nobody has set foot on the Moon since… but why?

The answer is quite unfortunate really. People got bored.

In the 60s the Soviet Union and the United States – arguably the two most powerful nations at the time – were racing to the Moon. Russia won the race to send a man into space – and return him safely. Russia also won the race to construct a space station. America however won the all important race to the Moon.

For a space explorer looking up into the night sky in the 50s and 60s, the goal was always to get to the Moon. So what happened when America got there? The space race lost public support. People started questioning why there was a need to go into space, why money wasn’t being (better) spent elsewhere. The US had shown that it could get to the Moon, and it could get there first, so why carry on?

Today

As the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic test flight and the ISS destined rocket which exploded show, going into space can still be dangerous. That said however with today’s technology we are more than capable of travelling into space reasonably safely.

It is thought that the Moon has a lot of water buried within its surface. Water is a critical element required by us to live. Water can also be used to make rocket fuel. Rocket fuel uses hydrogen and oxygen – the key components of water.

Rockets on Earth need huge amounts of fuel to escape the reaches of Earth’s gravity. The Moon is significantly lighter than Earth, and therefore rockets would need much less fuel to take off. This makes flights into space (to Mars for example) much more viable, if they take off from the Moon.

A manufacturing plant on the MoonNow, you may be thinking that we would need to get the rockets to the Moon in the first place, so why waste time relaunching them from the Moon? Well maybe we wouldn’t. The Moon has many of the resources we would need to build rockets. We would be able to create manufacturing bases on the Moon, with very little supplies from Earth. Progress would only be accelerated by the use of our new friend (or foe?) 3D printers.

All electrical power could be provided by solar panels – which we could build on the Moon. Lunar sun is very predictable, and with no atmosphere, the energy we could generate would be much greater than here on Earth.

Moon Base

A permanently manned Moon base is not a new idea. The US has had many plans over time to create a Moon base – originally for military reasons, however now for other reasons like energy and space travel. Japan, Russia and India are also currently all exploring the concept of establishing a base on the Moon within the next few decades.

What a Moon base could look like

The Moon could be a great service station for rockets. Missions into outer space could use the Moon as a pit stop to pick up supplies and refuel, before going on their way.

The Moon’s potential for solar energy could also be another interesting use for a Moon base. If we could cover vast areas of the Moon in solar panels and then transmit the energy back to Earth, we would be able to solve the global energy crisis. Naturally you would have to somehow persuade fossil fuel companies that it is a good idea first – and considering the power and influence they have, this could be difficult.

We currently have the technology and capabilities to create a permanent lunar base, now all we need is the enthusiasm and funding to make it happen.

The Importance of the Moon

Earth's natural satellite - the moonThe Moon is something many of us take for granted. It doesn’t really do that much, it just sits up their in space.

When someone talks about the Moon what springs to mind? Werewolves? Cheese? Wallace and Gromit?

Maybe you think of Apollo 11 in 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon.

I watched a very interesting BBC documentary recently called Do We Really Need the Moon? It explored how important the Moon has been to the development of life on Earth, and how important it may become in the future of space travel.

The Moon is likely to have been critical to the creation of life on Earth. It is believed that the Moon was formed when another planet crashed into Earth. At this point, the Earth was an uninhabitable, unstable lava wasteland. The collision created millions of pieces of molten rock which were sent into orbit. The biggest of these chunks of liquid rock grouped together (thanks to our old friend gravity) to form a new structure. Eventually all the pieces either became a part of the Moon, joined onto the Earth, or were flung off into space.

This massive collision reset Earth’s chemistry. Over the next 7 million years, it is thought that the Earth cooled, and water vapour condensed to form oceans. Oceans which the Moon controlled. The water nearest the Moon is affected by its gravitational pull more. This means that water recedes in other areas, amassing in the part of the ocean that is closest to the Moon. This is what creates the tides we know today, the same tides that are thought to have helped to create life – around 4 billion years ago.

Moon's gravity pulling the Earth

A picture from the BBC documentary Do We Really Need the Moon? showing how the Moon’s gravity pulls the oceans of the world towards it – creating tides.

So the Moon helped to create life, but that’s not all, it also helps to maintain it. The distance the Moon is away from the Earth, means that the tides are not too extreme. If the Moon were 20 times close than it is today then the Moon’s gravity would be 400 times stronger than it is today. This would create a huge tidal surge that would completely submerge all major cities around the world. At night, London would be underwater, and then a few hours later the waters would recede and flood New York. Evolution would not be able to adapt to changes that happened this quickly, and life on Earth would not exist.

The Moon also protects us in another way. Here is an image of the nearside of the Moon – the side we always see.

The nearside of the MoonNow here is an image of the farside, also known as the dark side of the Moon.

The farside of the MoonNotice a difference?

The farside is covered in a mass of craters, whilst the nearside is largely unscathed. Every crater on the farside of the Moon is a potential impact that the Moon has prevented for the Earth. Imagine that all meteoroids in space are chunks of iron, and the Moon is a giant magnet. The Moon pulls a lot of this space debris towards it.

Inevitably some meteoroids will collide with Earth, however the Moon does a pretty good job of shielding our planet from a lot of dangerous impacts.

We are pretty lucky really, if the Moon were much closer, or bigger, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Likewise, if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

So next time you see the Moon, spare a thought for how integral it is to life on Earth.

That’s Not It!

Enjoyed this article? Feeling like you want a bit more Moon stuff? Next week I continue to look at the Moon, this time from the perspective of space travel!

The Rosetta Space Mission

rosetta

This week I am muscling in on Christopher’s space series with a guest post about comet exploration.

In a couple of weeks (on November 12th to be precise), scientists will try to put a lander on a comet for the first time ever. The mission blasted off 10 years ago, made its rendezvous and began orbiting in August of this year, and is currently being prepared to touch down.

The mission is called Rosetta, and it is operated by the European Space Agency. It is a risky mission though and there are no guarantees that the lander will be able to plant itself safely on the comet. But if all goes well, the lander will stay operational as the comet flies closer and closer to the sun in its elliptical orbit, so that it can study how proximity to the sun changes the elements that make up the comet. The orbiter will follow, and should stay with comet until the end of next year, while the lander will operate until the spring when it will then get too hot to function.

Comets are some of the oldest structures in the solar system, so learning what they are made of and how they undergo change is seen as the closest thing to going back to the formation of the system currently possible. Scientists hope to gather evidence about water and carbon content, to see if the Earth could have got its first water and elements that are needed for the development of life from such bodies.

The Europeans Space agency has an interactive graphic so you can see how Rosetta arrived at its destination, and it is well worth a look. You really get an idea of the task of getting to something that is just a few KM across and traveling at 55 000 Kilometres per hour.

This article in the online journal Science gives lots more information, and there are some great photos here.

The European Space Agency are also running a competition to name the area where the craft is due to touch down. They want the public to propose names and reasons to use them, so that someone has the chance to enter the history books as their name will be immortalized. Why not give it a go, read more here.

The Size of Space

I’m starting with a fact today; two actually.

FACT

According to astronomer Dr Peter Edwards, if our solar system was a grain of sand, then The Milky Way (our Galaxy) would be 1,000 times the size of Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral from the South

Durham Cathedral

FACT

According to NASA there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.

Need a more visual representation of that? Well luckily for you, the American Museum of Natural History have spent quite a long time developing a digital universe.

Somewhat mind boggling, isn’t it. Dr Edwards doesn’t think the human mind is really built to understand the enormity of the universe. I think I probably agree with him.

In 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on a seemingly empty area of space. This area of space could be covered up with just a single grain of sand if you were looking at it from Earth. Astronomers didn’t think they would discover much, but if you have a super duper space telescope, why not see what it can find?

This is what that seemingly empty bit of space actually looked like when Hubble zoomed in.

A Hubble Space Telescope picture of millions of galaxy clustersEvery single speck of light you can see is a galaxy. Yes the 100 or so huge ones in the foreground, but also the millions in the background.

Each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Yes many of them look insignificantly small, but they are very very far away. So the well used fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth is actually true. In fact there are many billions more stars in space than there are grains of sand on the Earth. Each star is in solar systems filled with matter – from specs of dust to moons and planets.

The title of this article suggests that I will try to quantify the size of space. This isn’t really possible, so all we can currently do is describe its size relative to other things. If I had to use one word to describe space, I think it would have to be enormous.

A key question surrounding space is: is it infinite?

That is an existential question which I doubt we will ever know the answer to, but never the less it is still an interesting question, which is worth considering.

The theory that the universe is a sphere – like the Earth – is a popular one, and I can understand the logic in this, if you keep going, eventually the universe will loop you back around to where you started. But then my problem with this theory is we can go beyond the Earth. We can travel around the Earth, but space travel proves that we can move in 3 dimensions, straight and sideways on Earth and then upwards into space. If you got to the very edge of the universe, what would happen if you went upwards? If there isn’t an upwards, what is there?

New Scientist states that from all current data, it seems that the known universe has a diameter of about 93 billion light years. That’s pretty big, but by no means infinite. So if this estimate is correct – which is ridiculously unlikely – what comes after that? A big wall with a no entry sign? Just empty space? Another universe? Who knows…

That’s Your Lot

See you next week for the next in the series.