We’re back! To the Moon. Part II

37 years ago, the crew of the last Apollo lander rose from the surface of the Moon. Today it is known that with them mankind has left the Silver Globe for almost half a century. It is high time to start thinking about returning.

Today we present a continuing article on plans to re-explore the Silver Globe. You can find part one here.

Over the next few years, unmanned orbital vehicles will conduct a detailed study of a selected landing site. The data provided will help develop maps of nearby areas. Scientists will then investigate the presence of minerals and water resources (most likely in the form of ice) near the future base. The first of the probes, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, will set off this year, with further probes following at roughly yearly intervals.

When everything is ready for the manned mission, Ares V will lift a lunar lander into Earth orbit with the rocket’s second stage, EDS, attached. Then Ares I will launch with Orion and a crew of four. The two complexes will merge in orbit, after which the EDS engines will give the vehicles enough speed to reach the Moon. The spacecraft will enter lunar orbit by braking with Orion’s main engine. The final stage will be completed by the entire crew in a two-part lander. The braking stage will provide the crew with a soft landing and the ability to function on the surface.

Six months on the Moon

Once completed, the launch stage, equipped with its own engine, will allow the astronauts to return to Orion, which will wait in orbit in a dormant state. The lander’s upper stage will be ejected and Orion will enter a return trajectory using its own engine. Upon approaching Earth, the crew module will separate from the service module and enter the atmosphere. The ablative shield, vaporizing, will protect the capsule from the heat of braking in the atmosphere. After reducing speed, the capsule with the astronauts and 100 kg of cargo from the Moon will drop on parachutes into the ocean.

Unlike the Apollo program, the goal from the first mission to the Moon will be to establish a permanent base on its surface. A base that will become the most remote laboratory operated directly by man, serving to study our satellite and to develop and test new technical solutions. Each subsequent mission, also unmanned, will leave behind elements of infrastructure. It is estimated that already the members of the fifth or sixth manned mission will be able to live in a functioning base and stay on the lunar surface not seven days (first missions), but six months.

Corner on the Moon

Creating a moon base is a huge challenge. It is necessary to produce energy, to provide an environment suitable for life, to protect the crew from radiation, to cope with a two-week night and temperature amplitudes of several hundred degrees. The base should be as independent as possible – supplying every kilogram of air, water or food from Earth costs a lot. Engineers and scientists assume that local resources will be used to produce energy, oxygen and water.

The best location today seems to be near the South Pole. Due to the tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis, this is an area that receives sunlight 80 percent of the time, so solar cells can produce energy almost continuously. Daily temperature differences are also much smaller here. The most important and difficult to find lunar resource is water, and it is at the pole that the perpetually shadowed craters are located – likely to find ice left over from comets that have collided with the moon. The pole also has another advantage: if you need to evacuate from its vicinity, you can launch almost immediately to Orion, which is waiting in orbit. The emergency return time to Earth should not exceed five days.

An undertaking for everyone

The return to the Moon – at least for now – does not resemble the superpower race of the 1960s. Since the announcement of the new exploration strategy, the U.S. has declared its desire to pursue the program with the greatest possible international cooperation, and has invited anyone interested to participate in building the station and in the lunar exploration program. In May 2007, 14 space agencies (including those of China and Russia) agreed on the outline of a global strategy under which individual agencies’ programs would be coordinated. For obvious reasons, the forms of cooperation proposed by the U.S. do not include the joint construction of Orion or carrier rockets. So if other countries do not decide to build their own lunar transportation systems, the U.S. will have an advantage. It may prove to be extremely important for economic and strategic reasons if exploration of the Moon results in the development of commercial ventures, especially those that will become part of the “Earth’s” economy (e.g. helium-3 mining).

No decision in the near future

Other countries’ interest in exploration is so far limited to cooperation within the framework proposed by NASA and to carrying out unmanned missions. Only Russia has proposed building a manned Kliper spacecraft which could replace the Soyuz spacecraft in servicing the ISS and even reach the Moon. This project, however, lacked political support from the outset, and at present, during the economic crisis, it would be difficult to regard it as realistic. On the other hand, the Russian space program currently underway is based to a large extent on technologies from the 1960s and upgrading them would require significant investment. However, it is also worth remembering that the Soviet Zond spacecraft were able to reach the Moon’s orbit 40 years ago.

The European Space Agency is unlikely to decide to build its own spacecraft, although the possibility of cooperation with Russia in the construction of Kliper or a new vehicle in the shape of a capsule was considered. However, such a decision is not expected in the near future.

The Chinese – a great unknown

The great unknown remains China, which in 2003 sent a man into space for the first time aboard its own spacecraft. Since then, however, implementation of the program has been slower than many observers expected, and it is also based on relatively outdated technical solutions, in many cases purchased in Russia. The program, however, is surrounded by an aura of secrecy reminiscent of the atmosphere in the USSR in the 1960s, so it is difficult to assess the intentions of the Chinese. It does not appear that by 2020 Chinese achievements will be comparable to those of the US. However, the situation may change in the next 10-20 years.

Regardless of the declarations, ultimately lunar exploration will certainly depend on political conditions. It is quite likely that the new U.S. administration in the coming months will confirm its willingness to fund the lunar program. Probably then a greater number of countries will begin concrete talks with the U.S. on cooperation. In turn, if Russia copes with the economic crisis and continues its policy of confrontation with the West, it cannot be ruled out that it will decide to use the lunar program for prestige competition. Chinese actions will depend mainly on domestic politics, but also on the direction of development of relations with the US.

The Silver Globe in 20 years

After 2020, the American station will grow. In addition to American modules, modules built by other countries will probably appear. The base crew will expand and become more international. Off-road vehicles will be able to launch themselves over greater distances. In the beginning, these vehicles will probably be uncovered rovers, requiring work in a suit. After a few years, they will be replaced by airtight vehicles that can travel hundreds of miles and remain off base for days at a time. Astronauts will be assisted by robots, increasingly autonomous over time. New technologies for processing local resources will allow production to begin, including parts of the base. In the next 10 years, solar cells will be replaced by a small nuclear reactor. Commercial projects are sure to follow. Initially, they will be of advertising and entertainment nature, later commercial transportation of cargo and crews from Earth to the Moon will come into play.

Will 2020 be the last year?

Will lunar tourism develop? Will it be possible to vacation on the Moon in a dozen years or so? Will it be economically viable for robots to build huge solar battery farms and send energy to Earth? Or will the concept of mining helium-3 as fuel for nuclear fusion power plants work out? Will it be profitable to produce rocket fuel from local resources and treat the Moon as a fuel station for missions to far space? There are many questions, even more answers, and it is difficult to reliably predict the fate of the lunar base in a few decades. But one prediction has a great chance of coming true. The year 2020 may be the last year in which the Earth was the only space body inhabited by man.

The author is a specialist in space policy and the use of satellite technology.

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