Over the last couple of weeks I have found myself going deeper and deeper with research on Lunar missions.
After some inspiration from reading Seveneves I started looking for some actual scientific and planning information about various lunar options. I’ve been diving into the details and learning a lot about not only what’s possible, but also the enormous opportunity that the Moon presents for future spaceflight.
One thing that I have believed for a while now is that a mission directly to Mars, as envisioned by Elon Musk misses the main point of getting to space. Expending a ton of energy to leave the gravity well of Earth to reach the freedom of space where you can move vast distances with very little energy only to land back down on a large planet just trades one gravity well for another. With that strategy we will under-develop the capabilities to actually live in space. Elon’s goal is to get to Mars as quickly as possible which translates to favouring a strategy used to get to the moon with Apollo – a single launch rocket with enough power to reach the destination. This strategy by passes opportunities to increase our space presence in favour of hitting a goal sooner by brute force.
An incremental approach to get to Mars is to first develop the technology to mine the resources for such a trip from space. If we could gather the hydrogen & oxygen from the ice on the Moon and use that instead of launching it from Earth then the Mars rockets could be much smaller. Having a supply of propellant gathered in space makes other operations like re-boosting satellites feasible. Mining and refining other minerals from the Moon could eventually lead to the construction of heavier components for such space travel.
Mars launch windows come once every 18 months. That’s a long time to wait and puts tremendous pressure to have epic missions that achieve 2 years worth of progress into a single launch. The Moon, on the other hand has much more frequent launch windows (daily?) which would translate into more, lower risk missions. The moon is close enough that tele-robotics could be used – reducing the need for autonomous capabilities.
And the Moon has lots of valuables on it. Deposits of Iron, Titanium, Aluminum, Calcium and other elements have been found there, from the limited geology we have done during the Apollo missions. The Moon is made of the same core material as the Earth so there is a good bet we could find deposits of other valuable resources.
With things like the Google Lunar X Prize, it is obviously possible now for small companies to afford to design and launch lunar missions. SpaceX has reduced launch costs that allow access to the moon for relatively modest costs. It got me wondering if Canada could finance it’s own missions to the moon and send our own robots up there to do some prospecting.
A mission to start constructing a Lunar base at one of the poles with the goal of developing a operation to supply the space station with propellant and later other resources sounds very interesting and potentially profitable. Locking up key technology patents for lunar mining and resource extraction could be gold mine that pays dividends well into the future.
It’s a thought at the moment, but one that I’m keen to push forward and continue researching.