Posted by: adoseofliberty | January 4, 2010

Holey Moon Colony

Lunar Lava Tube

An international team of scientists have discovered a protected lunar lava tube (a deep, giant hole) that could possibly serve as a moon colony or a lunar base.  According to Geophysical Research Letters, the vertical hole is 213 feet wide and possibly more than 260 feet deep, and is “protected from the moon’s harsh temperatures and meteorite strikes by a thin sheet of lava.”

“Lunar lava tubes are a potentially important location for a future lunar base, whether for local exploration and development, or as an outpost to serve exploration beyond the Moon,” writes the team, led by Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher with the Japanese space agency JAXA.

“Any intact lava tube could serve as a shelter from the severe environment of the lunar surface, with its meteorite impacts, high-energy UV radiation and energetic particles, and extreme diurnal temperature variations.”

Although the findings were published on November 12, they only took hold of public attention this week.  The discovery of the tube was made using high-resolution images from a Japanese moon orbiter called SELENE.

NASA is reportedly working on plans to return to the moon by 2020 and to set up a temporary lunar colony by 2025 as part of the Constellation Program. Funding for the program, however, remains somewhat in question.

The debate about public vs. private funding of space exploration and access has been raging for decades.  Many criticize the massive waste of billions of dollars of taxpayer money into NASA programs that by nature avoid the large risk that is required to reap large benefits

because the voting public does not want to lose another astronaut, and that the risk-averse nature of the program is the biggest stumbling block to inspiring an environment of development or inspiration. Even Bill Nye the Science Guy remarked that “It’s easy to bust NASA’s chops.”

This contributes to the problem of hiring great talent; NASA can’t get people excited.  Although its budget allocation for 2007 was $17 billion, this is only 0.58% of the national budget and only 1/24th the amount the U.S. pays in interest every year on its debt.  Jeff Brooks argues that we’re not spending enough:

NASA spending made up more than five percent of the federal budget during the heady days of the Apollo program. If it received five percent of the federal budget today, its annual funding level would be $139.2 billion dollars. Imagine what the space agency could do if it had that level of support.

Why the Moon?

One of the most important and most-asked questions when discussing space projects is: Why?  Jeff Foust of The Space Review writes an honest piece examining this question and analyzing the reasons NASA has officially provided to the public.

The space agency certainly took a stab as it, unveiling a half dozen “lunar exploration themes” that provide the overall rationale for going back to the Moon. But those themes, ranging from science to commerce to settlement, are overly broad and vague: trying to appeal to everyone but running the risk of winning over no one. Failing to come up with a compelling answer to “why” runs the risk of making all the other questions moot.

Some of the more practical and detailed motivations include:

  • The energy required to send objects from the Moon to space is much less than from Earth to space, possibly enabling the Moon to serve as a construction site or fueling station.
  • A lunar base could be used to launch rockets since the Moon’s lower gravity requires a lower escape velocity than Earth.
  • A lunar base would provide an excellent site for any kind of observatory.  From Wikipedia: “Particular advantages arise from building observatory facilities on the Moon from lunar materials. As the Moon’s rotation is so slow, visible light observatories could perform observations for days at a time. It is possible to maintain near-constant observations on a specific target with a string of such observatories spanning the circumference of the Moon. The fact that the Moon is geologically inactive along with the lack of widespread human activity results in a remarkable lack of mechanical disturbance, making it far easier to set up interferometric telescopes on the lunar surface, even at relatively high frequencies such as visible light.”
  • A colonization of the moon would provide experience in most of the experiments, skills, and knowledge we would need to colonize another planet.
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