What it will take for humans to colonize the Moon and Mars

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will mark an important milestone in the history of American spaceflight with its takeoff at the end of 2024. Not only will it be the first time that American astronauts have traveled beyond LEO since the 1970s, and not only will it be the first opportunity for a woman. astronaut to walk on the moon. The Artemis mission will do the crucial groundwork necessary for humanity to further explore and potentially colonize our nearest celestial neighbor and possibly serve as a starting point in our quest to reach Mars. Given However, NASA and its partners will face a daunting challenge in keeping their lunar colonists alive and well.

Back in the days of the Apollo mission, the idea of ​​building even a semi-permanent presence on the moon’s surface was laughable – in large part because the many Samples collected and returned to Earth during this time were found to be “dry as a bone,” Rob Mueller, senior advanced project development technologist at NASA, told a 2021 SXSW panel. common wisdom, there is no water on the moon, and so for many years this was the assumption held in the [aerospace] community.”

It was not until the late 1990s that a neutron spectrometer on board NASA found telltale evidence of hydrogen atoms , suggesting the potential presence of water ice. And it was not until last October that detected water on the moon’s sunny surface, rather than scattering into deep, dark lunar craters.

“We had indications that H2O – the familiar water we know – might be present on the sunny side of the moon,” Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in the science missions directorate at NASA headquarters, . “Now we know it’s there. This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant to deep space exploration.

Based on this new evidence, Mueller believes there should be enough water ice available to “launch a vehicle like the space shuttle every day for 2,000 years.” So there is a lot of water on the moon. The thing is, we have to find it, access it, mine it, and then use it economically. “

The revelation that the moon contains a cache of water – which can be used to both quench an astronaut’s thirst and fuel his rocket – could trigger a resource grab like we haven’t seen since the 1940’s. -new, Pete Carrato, senior consulting engineer at the Bechtel Corporation, noted during the same panel discussion. “So the next gold rush for me is at the south pole of the Moon, and it’s a tough environment.”

This is because the largest accumulations of water are located in permanently shaded regions where the sun’s heating rays cannot reach the ice and vaporize it on the surface of the Moon. The problem is that the temperature in these regions hovers around 40 degrees Kelvin, which is cooler than liquid nitrogen. It’s so cold that even modern mining rigs built for Earth’s most extreme environments would struggle to function there. “You get metal parts this cold, they almost become like glass,” Carrato said.

“It’s also a hard vacuum on the moon, so you’re going to have some really weird issues like cold welding metals,” Mueller added. “If two metal surfaces are exposed to each other, they can actually bond together in a high vacuum and we’ve seen that in space before. It is a well known problem. “

The omnipresent, sharp as a razor, , electrostatic dust found on the moon also poses a danger to settlers – a danger NASA has grappled with since Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt caught the first case of “lunar hay fever.” This dust doesn’t just cling to rovers and space suits, tiny particles sneak into sensitive electronics, clog filters, block zippers, and freeze gaskets. NASA has to counter the electrical attraction of dust, but its large-scale effectiveness remains to be seen. The micrometeorites themselves, whose impacts with the surface create this dangerous dust, will also need to be taken into account when designing lunar habitats.

But unlike the Apollo era, which helped usher in the Cold War, this time the US government is not going it alone. The Artemis program deeply coordinates its efforts alongside a multitude of and business partners such as SpaceX, which is responsible for orbit the moon (for $ 331.8 million) in 2024.

“This will allow us to do it at a reasonable cost with no doubt a return on investment, but we cannot do it like NASA. NASA is a government agency, the role of government is to facilitate the industry, ”Mueller explained. “So we are putting in place the framework, the infrastructure and all the processes, the legal framework, the communications, the launch sites. All of this is necessary, and private industry can then step in and do what it can do, which is to make money and create an economically efficient system. “

While partnering with other nations in this endeavor is a great way to share the upfront costs, it could lead to conflicts over which member country will have access and the rights to what resources. Currently, these matters are governed by the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty, but its language is not entirely clear, leaving the rules open to different readings. “The American interpretation is that we will not claim land and / or claim sovereignty, but we have the right to use the resources and the commercial industry has the right to use the resources,” Mueller said. . In addition, the Outer Space Treaty lacks specific enforcement mechanisms and has yet to be ratified by any signatory country, making its rules more of a suggestion. Likewise, the Artemis Accords are guidelines rather than directives, although if enough nations adhere to them and act within it, he continued, “over time it becomes a de facto right.” .

Mars poses many of the same exploration and eventual colonization challenges as the Moon, such as deadly radiation, micrometeorite impacts, and adherent dust particles – not to mention the six-month journey it takes just to get to the first, against three lousy days. for the last one. This vast distance also puts a strain on our ability to remotely control the rovers and other remotely operated robotic systems that we send to the Red Planet due to the communication delay of a few minutes.

Future explorers and settlers will also have to contend with the wide temperature ranges that exist at each destination. On the Moon, for example, the solar side can be as hot as 125 Celsius while the shaded side can drop to -175 Celsius, causing intense heat stress on objects moving between them. Protection from galactic and solar radiation will also have to be an important part of any decision about where to settle on the surface. Shaded valleys and cliffside locations provide a higher degree of natural protection, so we will need to carefully consider the local topography when selecting settlement sites. One potential solution to the radiation problem would be to cover our artificial habitats with a 3D printed shell made from Martian soil itself, noted Xavier De Kestelier, head of design technology and innovation at Hassell, during the panel.

Maintaining the physical and mental health of the crew on these increasingly lengthy missions will be of utmost importance and will need to be accomplished without help from home. The further we travel from Earth, “the medical models we might need and the psychological pressures on the crew will be different,” said Beth Healey, head of the emergency clinic at the Valais hospital. Each crew member will be called upon to assume several roles beyond their individual specialties during the mission.

If we manage to overcome these challenges, however, the rewards will be substantial. “It’s very difficult to live in space,” Mueller said during a separate panel discussion at SXSW 2021. “The good news is that there are a lot of resources in our solar system and beyond there. there is almost an infinite amount of resources compared to what we have on Earth. These include everything from water, atmospheric gases, volatiles and rare metals to the crew’s own waste to energy. “If you have sunlight, you have access to energy,” he continued. Humanity has already shown that it is capable of inhabiting some of the most inhospitable regions on Earth, such as the Concordia station in Antarctica. With continued diligence, research and international cooperation, the stars themselves may soon be within our grasp.

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