If you were transported to the moon at this moment, you would surely and quickly die. This is because there is no atmosphere, the surface temperature varies from a roasting 130 degrees Celsius (266 F) to a bone cooling minus 170 C (minus 274 F). If the lack of air or terrible heat or cold does not kill you, micrometeorite bombardment or solar radiation will. The moon is not a hospitable place to be for all accounts.
But if people are exploring the moon and possibly living there one day, we must learn how to handle these challenging environmental conditions. We need habitats, air, food and energy, as well as fuels for power rockets back to earth and possibly other destinations. This means that we need resources to meet these requirements. We can either bring them with us from the earth – an expensive suggestion – or we must use the resources of the Moon ourselves. And that's where the idea of "in-situ resource utilization" or ISRU comes in.
The basis for efforts to use lunar material is a desire to establish either temporary or even permanent human settlements on the moon – and there are many advantages to doing so. For example, moon bases or colonies can provide invaluable training and preparation for missions to longer-lost destinations, including Mars. Developing and utilizing lunar resources is likely to lead to a large number of innovative and exotic techniques that may be useful on Earth, as has been the case with the International Space Station.
As a planet geologist, I am fascinated by how other worlds came and what lessons we can learn about the formation and development of our own planet. And for one day I actually hope to visit the moon personally, I am particularly interested in how we can use the resources there to make human exploration of the solar system as economical as possible.
In-situ resource utilization
The ISRU sounds like science fiction, and at present it is widely used. This concept involves identifying, extracting and processing material from the moon surface and the interior and converting it into something useful: oxygen for breathing, electricity, building materials and even rocket fuel.
Many countries have expressed a renewed desire to return to the moon. NASA has a number of plans to do so, China landed a rover at lunar Farside in January and has an active rover there right now, and many other countries have their views on moon mission. The need to use materials that already exist on the moon becomes more pressing.
The foresight of the moon life is to drive technology and experimental work to determine how to efficiently use lunch material to support human exploration. For example, the European Space Agency plans to land a spacecraft at Mun's South Pole by 2022 to drill under the surface in search of water ice and other chemicals. This boat will contain a research instrument designed to obtain water from the earth's soil or regolith.
There have even been discussions about finally mining and shipping to the earth, helium-3 locked in the moon regiment. Helium-3 (a non-radioactive isotope of helium) can be used as fuel for fusion reactors to produce large amounts of energy at a very low environmental cost – although fusion as an energy source has not yet been demonstrated and the volume of extractable helium -3 is unknown. But even if the true costs and benefits of the lunar ISRU are still seen, there is no reason to believe that the great current interest in the mine moon will not continue.
It is worth noting that the moon cannot be a particularly suitable destination for mining other valuable metals such as gold, platinum or rare earth metals. This is due to the process of differentiation, where relatively heavy materials fall and lighter material rises when a planetary body partially or almost completely melts.
This is basically what happens if you shake a test tube filled with sand and water. In the beginning, everything is mixed together, but the sand eventually differs from the liquid and sinks to the bottom of the pipe. And just as for the earth, most of the moon's inventory of heavy and valuable metals is probably deep in the mantle or even the core, where they are basically impossible to access. It is actually because smaller bodies like asteroids generally do not undergo differentiation that they are such promising targets for mineral exploration and extraction.
The moon actually has a special place in planetary science because it is the only other body in the solar system where people have set foot. The NASA Apollo program in the 1960s and 70s saw a total of 12 astronauts walking, bouncing and paddling on the surface. The stone samples that they took back and the experiments they left there have made possible a greater understanding of not only ours, but how planets form in general than what has ever been possible otherwise.
From these assignments and others in the following decades, researchers have learned a lot about the moon. Instead of growing from a cloud of dust and ice like the planets in the solar system, we have discovered that our closest neighbor is probably the result of a giant influence between the proto-earth and a Mars-sized object. That collision ejected a large amount of debris, some of which later gathered in the moon. From analyzes of moon samples, advanced computer modeling and comparisons with other planets in the solar system, we have learned from many other things that colossal effects can be the rule, not the exception, in the early days of this and other planetary systems.
Performing scientific research on the moon would provide dramatic increases in our understanding of how our natural satellite came and what processes work on and within the surface to make it look the way it does.
The coming decades promise a new era of exploration of the moon, with people living there for extended periods of time possible through the extraction and use of the Moon's natural resources. With an ever-determined effort, the Moon can not only become a home for future explorers, but the perfect pavement for taking our next big leap.
Paul K. Byrne, Assistant Professor of Planetary Geology, North Carolina State University
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