It’s time to picture a world of human existence beyond earth. At least, that’s what Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the new director general of the European Space Agency (ESA) as of July 2015, is pushing forward.
He thinks it’s time we start planning to return to the moon and live there. But how would we adjust to living on the moon? What would our homes look like? Where would our food and water come from? How would we be entertained? A village on the moon may soon be a possibility and Quantumrun outlines a blueprint of what home in outer space could look like.
Our homes will be made from moon walls, the ground and printing
Researchers have discovered hundreds of steep-walled pits that could provide shelter and protection from meteoroids, solar radiation, and drastic temperature shifts. Spotted by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the pits range in size from 5 to more than 900 meters in diameter. Some appear to widen underground, suggesting that some of these holes might lead to caves, which provides further protection from hazardous environmental risks.
To build lunar houses, Woerner says the moon’s soil, regolith, can serve as insulation, but a glue or another adhesive needs to be developed to bind the soil into a “moon concrete.”
Three-dimensional printing may also be the way to go. Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team points out that 3D printing “offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth.”
Currently, the ESA has partnered with industrial firms such as Foster + Partners to test the feasibility and possibility of 3D printing using the lunar regolith. Laurent Pambaguian, leading the project for the ESA, reports that “terrestrial 3D printing has produced entire structures.” This means that lunar soil and materials might have the right capabilities.
The idea is to create homes shaped into catenary domes with cellular structured walls and pressurized inflatables—a design that considers extreme climates on the moon and exploits environmental benefits. ‘Printing’ homes will be done layer by layer: mixing lunar soil with magnesium oxide creates the ‘paper’ and a binding salt creates the ‘ink’ that converts the lunar material to a “stone-like solid.”
We will grow our own food on the moon
These lunar buildings will house laboratories, power generators, processing and manufacturing facilities, greenhouses—and not to mention, eventually people. When people settle there, both food and water can be flown in from Earth, however, there are cheaper, local alternatives.
It’s possible for a human colony to survive on lunar farming, for example. A report last year indicated that 20 percent of crops grown in lunar soil survived for 50 days—a short cycle, but nonetheless, a good start.
The study, entitled “Can Plants Grow on Mars and the Moon: A Growth Experiment on Mars and Moon Soil Simulants” and published in Public Library of Science One journal (PLOS), reported that “plants are able to germinate and grow on both Martian and moon soil simulant … without any addition of nutrients.”
Dutch researchers planted fourteen plant species, including tomatoes and carrots, into pots with three soil types: Martian, lunar, and poor Earth soil. Kept in the same greenhouse conditions—in roughly 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 16 hours of light per day and sprayed with demineralized water—the experiment revealed that in 50 days, 20% of the plants survived in lunar soil, 50% in Earth soil, and 65% in Martian soil.
A Realclearscience article explains that “crop species were the most successful. 80% of the tomato, rye, carrot, and garden cress plants were alive in Martian soil at the end of the study. Many of the plants also produced leaves and a few even grew flowers.”
The study points out lunar soil’s low acidity and inability to hold water and poses questions about whether it’s even safe to consume food grown in extraterrestrial soils. However, the study of course only provides mere glimpses and hopes of the moon’s potential.
But even assuming that plants and crops can grow in outer space and are safe to eat, where will the water come from to water our food and how will irrigation be possible? There are two possibilities: (1) Simply ship water from Earth and bring it over to the moon or (2) Mine water from the moon.
In the summer of 2008, water was conclusively discovered when an Apollo 15 mission brought back lunar volcanic glasses. Later, NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper on the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft captured images of water-rich minerals around a small crater on the moon. More than 40 craters, ranging from 1 to 9 miles in diameter, were found with water ice—in total, an estimated of at least 600 million metric tons of water ice.
With evidence of lots of water on the moon, NASA is developing two missions to assess and learn how to extract and exploit these stores of water ice. The missions—Lunar Flashlight and the Resource Prospector Mission—are planned to be launched in 2017 and 2018 in an attempt to as Barbara Cohen, of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama, puts it, to, “Understand the inventory of volatiles across the whole moon and their purity, and their accessibility in particular.”
All this is in development and nothing is concrete. But it’s not out of reach, it’s not impossible, according to Johann-Dietrich Woerner.
“We need to take the first steps in demonstrating off of this world utilization of material,” says Tony Colaprete of NASA Ames.
The moon is there, right in front of us, and it’s about time we seriously start considering using Earth’s natural satellite for its materials and minerals.
We haven’t been on the moon since 1972, but we’ll be going back soon.