science

To the Moon!

In recent years it seems to be the focus of space agencies to return to the moon. Bush announced that we were going to return to the moon in 2020; Japan plans to land a man on the moon in 2020 and have a permanent base in 2030; China is planning a rover sample return mission in 2017; India expects to send a rover in 2013; The European Space agency plans to have a man on the moon in 2024; Germany has been trying to land an orbiter; Even Russia is planning an orbiter for 2012.

Why all the interest?

Moon SettlementsThese major countries are expanding their supremacy in more ways than just economics and proximity. Knowledge is power and power is what they want, but there are other more obvious reasons:

  1. Status – If you develop nuclear weapons, you’re in the leave me alone club. If you land on the moon, you’re in the totally awesome club.
  2. Resources – Fusion is clean energy, if you’re using the right stuff. Hydrogen fusion spits out a neutron which destroys reactors. Helium-3, on the other hand, only gives off energy. Great stuff, but we don’t really have any here on earth. The moon has tons of it.
  3. Progress – Establishing permanent residence off-earth is difficult if you don’t have any local resources to pull from. You can burn water, oxygen, building materials and other useful stuff out of the regolith on the moon.

Sounds pretty cool.

It does. I know my wife was told that we’d be living on the Moon by now and I would assume many other people have grown up with this dream. Having a permanent settlement on the moon is a good launching point for other spacefaring endeavors. That is, until you look at the drawbacks.

Say what?

Yeah, the Moon is not the ideal place to live, work or do anything else us humans like to do. Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Power – The Moon spins 28 times slower than the Earth. In an spacefaring world of solar energy being without sun for 14 day stretches is not a good thing. Yeah, I know there are places at the Moon’s South Pole that have Sun all the time, but if you want to mine all that He-3 you need access to the rest of the planet. Also we can’t grow food without artificial lights.
  2. Environment – The surface temperature of the Moon goes from about 107°C to -153°C when day changes to night. Any equipment stuck on the surface needs to be able to handle this temperature change as well as being blasted by radiation from the Sun. Yes, you get radiation in open space, but you don’t get the huge variations in temperature.
  3. Gravity – Any time spent in gravity less than Earth’s causes your bones to lose mass permanently. The more time the more mass. The loss can be minimized by rigorous exercise, but you will never stop it completely. Not good. Also, any ships arriving or leaving the Moon need extra fuel to land or take off that they wouldn’t need visiting a space station.

So we’re never living in space?

Not if we keep doing what we have been doing. The international space station is cool and amazing, but it is a terrible place to live and the Moon is no better. We need gravity and the only way of creating it is with a lot of mass. So unless you have a portable 2″ black hole we can use we don’t have real gravity.

What about Mars?

Similar problem, the gravity is only 2/5 of Earth’s and if something goes wrong there is no going home. Getting there requires months of travel.

Artificial?

Ooh, you saw where I was going with that. Popular science fiction has had it wrong for so long. The cool ships of Star Wars and Star Trek make no sense when you apply physics to them. How do those people stand up? There is one way to make artificial gravity that is neither experimental nor is it new. You saw it in 2001 Space Odyssey: The spinning space station.

2001 Space StationRemember the spinning centrifuge ride where it spins so fast that everyone is pushed against the sides? When the bottom dropped out no one fell. Same principle. Make a giant wagon wheel with spokes. People live in the outer ring and instead of their back being held flat against the side their feet are held down. Get that wheel spinning fast enough and you’ve got the same gravity as Earth. Slap on some solar panels and you’ve got a great place to live and work in space.

What about supplies?

We still have to launch them from Earth and space elevators are still a few years out. With a permanent settlement in space and people staying there longer there is the possibility of growing our own food and working on long term projects.

I see the future filled with spinning wheels in space. Whether they be spaceships, stations or research facilities, anytime humans will be spending a decent amount of time in space there will be a big spinning wheel to accompany them.

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