Breaking the Ice with Our Lunar Neighbour

Featured, Science, Space, Technology 2020-02-18

Three years before David Bowie launched “Rocket Man” into the world, Neil Armstrong (without the benefit of a background track) staggered a live audience of 650 million people by becoming the first human to walk on another celestial body. So, what led to the first moonwalk? What did we gain from this legendary event, which was the culmination of hard work and sleepless nights from some of the brightest minds of the time?  And finally, what is the next step?

Curiosity about the origin of the moon, its composition and symbolism has been rife since our ancestors first opened their eyes and looked up at the luminous orb hanging in the night sky. Religions sprang up around it. It was a perfect sphere. It was lit from within. It was governed by its own God. It was made of cheese. Nobody had the answers, and so the mythology surrounding the moon flourished until the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first questioned it in 428 BC. By claiming that it was just a rock reflecting the light of the Sun, he faced exile from Ancient Greece. It was not until Galileo built his first telescope in 1609 that we came to understand that the moon was by no means a smooth sphere, but instead pitted with craters and ridged with mountains. He published his findings in his book Sidereus Nuncius, and subsequently the moon began to be mapped out from afar by curious scholars.

Galileo Galilei: Sidereus Nuncius – Venice, 1610 / Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps on the surface of the Moon. Credits: The Warnock Library / NASA, Getty Images

From then on, progression slowed. There was simply a limit on how much information could be garnered from a distance, and early probes were likewise restricted in their capabilities. It became clear that to find out more about our near neighbour, we had to get on closer terms; we had to land on the moon, and we had to do it ourselves. And so the Apollo missions were born, catalysed by political events but pioneered by scientists. Since their success we have made some revolutionary discoveries regarding the Moon and even the planets beyond. Some of the most significant follow:

1. There are no aliens on the moon.
Disappointing? Perhaps, but something that we could not have confirmed without the Apollo missions.

2. The moon is not made of cheese.
In fact, the moon is our geological relative, with similarity in mineral content indicating the Moon and Earth were initially merged into one mass, giving rise to the Giant Impact Hypothesis. Simply put, this hypothesis suggests that the moon was originally part of the Earth, until an asteroid approximately half its size blasted into the planet. The Moon then formed out of the debris left over from the impact.

3. Earth’s geological history.
Following on from the Giant Impact Hypothesis, the youngest lunar rocks are virtually the same age as the oldest rocks on Earth. As a result, invaluable information regarding the geological history of planet Earth is locked inside them.

4. Understanding climate change.
Rock fragment rubble on the lunar surface, referred to as regolith, has collected over billions of years. Having soaked up the Sun’s radiation for equally as long, regolith provides information regarding the Sun’s history that is incredibly useful for understanding climate change on Earth.

5. The origin of craters.
Strange though it may seem, the origin of craters on the Moon and also on Earth was highly debated prior to the Apollo missions. Samples brought back from the Apollo missions proved they were caused by asteroid impacts, and calibration against absolute ages of the rocks created a timescale for geological events that could be extrapolated to give information on the evolution of other planets. These methods were all developed from lessons we learned on the Moon.

Alan Bean takes a sample of lunar regolith during the Apollo 12 mission. / NASA moon rock collected by astronauts in 1971. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Technological innovations resulting from spaceflight have also spilled over into fields beyond spaceflight in a way that is not widely known. Innovations that ended up elsewhere are wide ranging, including the CAT scanners used for cancer detection, LEDs, cordless drills, smoke detectors, home insulation, scratch-resistant screens, satellite TV and so much more. Even invisible braces were developed from spacecraft materials.

Most recently, the discovery of vast ice deposits on the Moon has brought NASA’s and the ESA’s current plans to establish a lunar colony or ‘moon village’ by 2028 into the spotlight. Water means life, and a plentiful supply of water ice on the Moon paves the way for the establishment of a permanent lunar outpost. But the incredible expense of this mission in an uncertain economic climate begs the question: is it worth it?

New satellite data shows more signs of water on the Moon. Credit: dpa

Estimates of the price tag on a lunar outpost range from US $7-$10 billion for space travel, with a further $28-$52 billion budgeted for building constructions on the lunar surface. Given that this is estimated to be enough to bulk out the current budget and end world hunger for five to six years, it may seem as though that money should be used for terrestrial affairs and the Moon left well enough alone. Moreover, it can be argued that robots are infinitely cheaper to send into space. They do not require return trips, suffer from radiation sickness, require a body temperature of exactly 37.5°C or need life support. What’s more is that we have obtained valuable insights from the data past probes have sent back to us.

If this was not enough to discourage a moon colony, temperatures on the moon’s surface can vary in a day, ranging from a scorching 116°C to a chilly -173°C along the equator. Nights can also last more than two weeks depending on the region, impeding solar power. This challenge, coupled with a thin atmosphere, frequent meteorite showers and heavy doses of radiation, throws the mission into uncertainty. There is ample opportunity for failure without careful planning for all eventualities, and that is easier said than done. And if the mission does fail, it may not only be billions of dollars that are lost.

Mars rover illustration / View captured from the rover in 2014 – Credit: NASA, JPL/Cornell University

On the flip side, the strongest argument in favour of the mission is that it could be a practice run before attempting something similar on Mars. The Red Planet, which still holds the tantalising possibility of extraterrestrial life, is much further from us than the Moon. On the Moon, the volunteers will be just three days from aid, while Mars is a six-month space trek. As we have been to the Moon before, we have a good understanding of the dangers. It will also serve as an opportunity to test equipment in a meaningful way before sending astronauts beyond the reach of help. From this viewpoint, using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars makes sense and remains NASA’s main motivation.

Other NASA objectives for a sustained presence on the Moon’s south pole include exploration of the distribution and abundance of resources – including rare-earth metals (over 90% of which on Earth exist within Chinese territory), and helium-3, which has potential as a fuel for nuclear fusion. Further benefits would include strengthening international collaboration and the creation of economic opportunities. For example, there are already plans to take tourists to the Moon by 2024.

In spite of this, with numerous benefits and small risk, continuing to send unmanned missions to Mars remains logical. However, there is a snag. While the Mars Opportunity Rover was a fantastic piece of technology that survived long past its predicted lifetime, it took 11 years to travel 26.2 miles – the distance of a typical marathon. Probes also depend on instructions sent out from Earth, which results in unavoidable time delays (between 4 to 24 minutes from Earth to Mars each way) that can have devastating consequences. These include not only missed opportunities due to delayed reaction, but difficulty navigating dangerous situations such as planetary landings, which are forced to take place under autopilot.

The expense of the mission is irrefutable. However, the fact remains that it will not get any cheaper. The question is: how long should we put it off? As the human race expands, we will need a place to go. With nine billion people predicted to live on Earth by 2050, and a maximum carrying capacity estimated at up to 10 billion, this may become a problem sooner than you think. With each of these missions our technology becomes more advanced. Eventually, we will reach a level that will allow us to comfortably branch out beyond our home planet if need be, not only to satisfy our curiosity and pursue lofty philosophical goals, but to solve real problems. This will only happen if we keep pushing for it.

Whichever side of the fence you stand on, it is clear that we have reached a tremendously exciting time in space exploration. Over 50 years after Neil Armstrong walked the moon, we may be about to take another giant leap forward. Watch this space!



Further reading:

Apollo 11 Mission

Anaxagoras, the first Presocratic philosopher

Forward to the Moon: NASA’s Strategic Plan for Human Exploration

Ending world hunger is within reach: Study finds it will cost only USD 11 billion more a year

Top Ten Scientific Discoveries Made During Apollo Exploration of the Moon

Exploring the Moon – A history of lunar discovery from the first space probes to recent times

Apollo 11 Moon Landing: Top 15 Nasa Inventions

How long does it take to travel to Mars?

Opinion: We could colonize the moon at an initial cost of only $10 billion

The Moon in Sidereus nuncius and the Dialogue

Time delay between Mars and Earth

This is why lunar colonies will need to live underground

Why the Moon?

Blue Origin: Bezos company aims to take people to moon by 2024

NASA Mars Exploration Rovers – Opportunity updates 2019

How Many People Can Earth Support?

Study suggests much more water on the moon than thought