Designs on the moon: not so science fiction

By Sheila Moorcroft

Several nations have announced plans to explore and exploit opportunities on the moon. The aims are variously to develop a space exploration jump off point, grow food, generate power, and find minerals. Technological advances are enabling these plans, and will also be advanced by them. But international agreements on space exploration are weak. Governance and technical success are both needed.

What is changing?

A raft of technologies is taking space exploration to a new level. Robotic vehicles are growing in sophistication as demonstrated by the recent Mars missions. 3D printing is being explored to build lunar housing using lunar dust as part of the mix. Laser technology may provide inter-planetary communications. Solar power conversion technology is making potential power generation on space stations and other planets ever more efficient.

Then there are the other reasons driving moon exploration – economic, political, social, and technological. World-wide some 70 countries have active space agendas, small scale programmes in countries such as Belarus, Bolivia and Sri Lanka and major players such as the USA, Japan, China, India, Iran and South Korea.

Japan is short of energy and other natural resources. The plans to address the issue involve building a ‘Luna Ring’, a massive 20 kilometre wide strip of solar panels which circumnavigate the moon, to provide non-stop power. The power would then be beamed back to Japan, using lasers and microwaves.

China has for many years been building a significant space exploration programme as an important industry. Its current plans involve satellite launches, mars missions and moon missions. Its most recent mission – an unmanned lunar probe – is currently circling the moon, and is due to land soon – the first moon landing since 1976. It is the first stage of a 3 phase programme to land astronauts on the moon in about 15 years’ time.

India has, for now, abandoned a human moon landing, but is currently sending a mission to Mars, and recently passed by the moon en route. It also plans a mission to Venus. Economic and social developments are the rationale; so too is competition with China for dominance in Asia.

In the USA, NASA has announced various moon related plans such as growing vegetables on the moon by 2015; capturing an asteroid and ‘parking’ it near the moon so that they can learn how to protect the earth from asteroid hits and practise space walking and other manoeuvres.

The EU has announced plans for a lunar base built using 3D printing and a Norman Foster design, 90% of the materials for which would come from the planet itself.

The development of ‘cheap’ space exploration (see the Open space alert), competitions such as the Lunar X prize, investment in low level space tourism flights, are further changing the image of space exploration. The recent hit movie Gravity has rekindled interest and made space glamorous again- even if by dramatizing the vulnerability of space installations to the growing amount of debris hurtling through space.

Implications

Commercial and strategic opportunities in space are growing. Since the 1960s, and the US – USSR space race, space exploration has provided high profile scientific successes and technological breakthroughs which boost national pride, technical and economic development. It has also shown the dangers with terrible failures such as the Challenger disaster. Today is no different. Technological advances will no doubt continue to be enhanced by developments on the moon as commercialization and exploitation take over from exploration. The question will be at what cost?

For China and India having a space programme establishes their credentials as high tech nations in the eyes of both the world and their own citizens – regardless of the debates about spending priorities. The additional lure of potential mineral wealth and a foothold for further space exploration are powerful motivators not just for them.

Just as in the 1960s space exploration became a proxy for tensions on earth in the US – USSR space race, so lunar exploitation today could be an even greater focus for tensions. China and Japan are in dispute about territorial claims to islands in the East China Sea between the two countries. US planes have recently deliberately flown into related airspace which China had declared closed. India and China are in media, but not military, conflict over border areas in a politically sensitive and potentially explosive part of the world.

But, despite a number of treaties promoted by the United Nations, governance is weak, with few real agreements for ‘rules of engagement’ in space. Until now, the emphasis on exploration and joint ventures, such as the International Space Station, has made inadequate treaties less of an issue. Moon exploitation for power, space stations and minerals would up the ante many times over. The moon could become a focus of conflict that makes concerns about managing the exploitation of the Arctic look like a picnic.

For a few extreme pessimists, exploring the moon provides a safety valve for the human race. That when (as opposed to if) disaster strikes on earth, if we have established colonies in space we can ‘start again more easily’. But without good space governance that very exploration could become the trigger for not only disasters on earth.

Collaboration has been a characteristic of recent space exploration and science. Maintaining that ethos as we move into space exploitation and colonisation presents a challenge of similar magnitude to the technical challenges. Overcoming both is essential.

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