Russia, according to one report, is planning to colonize the moon by 2030. While this news may be speculative, alarmist, or possibly not even based in reality, we still wanted to know if moon colonization in 16 years is even possible. So we asked Dr. Nadine G. Barlow, a professor and associate chair in the physics and astronomy department at Northern Arizona University, for some answers. Watch out for the abrasive lunar dust, people.
Is it reasonable to expect that Russia could colonize the moon by 2030? What technology needs to be designed/developed before something like that can occur?
The year 2030 is only 16 years away, so this goal seems rather optimistic to me, especially considering that the last time the country sent a mission to the Moon was in 1976 with the Soviet robotic Luna 24 mission. Russia has been working on plans to return to the Moon for about the last 15 years and has a series of robotic missions planned beginning in 2016. However, the 2016 launch has slipped several times since its initially-planned launch in 2012 due to funding issues. Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency) needs a dramatic influx of funding from the government and/or private sources to return the country to lunar exploration. Russia has considerable experience in terms of keeping cosmonauts alive in orbiting space stations and can apply that technological knowledge to the development of the infrastructure needed for humans to colonize the moon. However, there are a number of issues which colonies on the moon will encounter which are not experienced in near-Earth orbit, such as 14 Earth days of continuous daylight followed by 14 Earth days of night, abrasive lunar dust, which will damage machinery and which is difficult to clean off, etc. Russia never landed humans on the moon, and it has been decades since its last successful robotic landing on another world, so the country will need to have a huge influx of money and talent in order to reach their goal of establishing colonies on the moon by 2030.
Any ballpark on how expensive would it be to do so?
The cost depends on how many people you would send to colonize the moon and how many shipments of supplies and materials would be necessary to establish the colony. A typical cost to send humans and materials from Earth to the moon is about $50,000 per pound. The result, even if lunar resources are used to construct the habitat, usually has a lower estimate of several tens of billions of dollars to establish a colony on the moon.
"The cost of colonizing other worlds will be extremely expensive and thus would take an incredible amount of a single country’s overall budget. Therefore, human exploration and colonization of other worlds will likely become an international effort with the cost spread across several countries rather than a Space Race to beat others to the lunar surface. "
What are the benefits of colonizing the moon?
Colonies on the moon present several advantages. The moon has 1/6 the gravitational pull of the Earth, so it could become a cheaper spaceport from which to launch missions to other parts of our solar system. It has some natural resources, which could be mined, such as regions with high titanium concentrations and implanted helium from the sun, which could be used for developing energy from fusion. The moon has not undergone as much volcanic and tectonic processing as the Earth, so it still retains information from the early history of the solar system, which has been lost here on our home planet—it therefore can help us better understand the origin and early history of our own planet. Astronomers look to the moon as a location for future optical and radio observatories, away from the light pollution and radio noise of Earth. And of course it would literally be an out-of-this-world tourist destination if the cost of getting there could be reduced to a value that people could afford.
Are there unintended consequences we might not be considering if we colonize the moon?
There are several concerns about human activities on the moon. The lunar day is about 29 Earth days long, which means most places on the lunar surface receive about two weeks of daylight followed by two weeks of night. This places strong constraints on possible energy sources (power by solar energy would not work without development of some very effective energy storage technologies) and will affect human circadian rhythms to a greater extent than we see even with shift workers here on Earth. The Apollo missions to the moon between 1969 and 1972 showed that the lunar dust is very abrasive, sticks to everything, and may be toxic to humans—machinery is likely to need constant maintenance and techniques will need to be developed to keep the astronauts from bringing dust into the habitats on their spacesuits after surface activities. Growing crops on the moon will present its own challenges between the long day/night cycles and the need to add nutrients/bacteria to the lunar soil. Surface activities will kick up dust from the surface, enhancing the thin veneer of particles that make up the lunar atmosphere and transporting the dust over larger distances to cause even more damage to machinery. The moon’s atmosphere is so thin that is provides no protection from micrometeorite bombardment or radiation—both of these issues will need to be addressed in habitat design and maintenance. Finally we know that astronauts living for extended periods of time in the microgravity environment of orbiting space stations often suffer physiological issues, particularly upon return to Earth. We don’t know if colonists living for extended periods of time in the 1/6 gravity of the moon will suffer similar physiological problems. And of course there is always the question of how humans will react psychologically to life in a confined habitat in such an alien environment.
Does "colonizing the moon" make sense as a goal? It's a nice talking point, but are there other/better space exploration-related priorities that would make more sense?
There are a number of people who argue that we should bypass the moon in favor of “more interesting” places for human colonization, such as Mars. However, colonizing the moon does have some strong arguments in its favor. The moon is relatively close to Earth—it only takes a few days to travel between the Earth and moon rather than months to years to travel to Mars. The moon therefore is a good location to try out the technologies needed for colonization of other worlds. After all, the early American settlers did not make a quick dash from the East Coast to the West Coast—they started out the westward expansion by settling areas closer to “home” and gradually moving further away. We already have seen that there are often unexpected problems when developing completely enclosed habitats—for example, the concrete used to build the Biosphere 2 facility near Tucson, Arizona, was found to absorb more oxygen than expected, resulting in problems for the humans, animals, and plants during the “closed missions” in 1991 to 1994. The ease of traveling between Earth and the moon makes it an excellent place to test out new designs and technologies and resolve any issues that arise before embarking on colonization plans for more distant worlds.
How much does international politics play a role in something like this? There are a number of countries that have expressed similar goals with regard to colonization. Are we about to enter a new era of the Space Race?
As noted above, the cost of colonizing other worlds will be extremely expensive and thus would take an incredible amount of a single country’s overall budget. Therefore, human exploration and colonization of other worlds will likely become an international effort with the cost spread across several countries rather than a Space Race to beat others to the lunar surface. Influx of funds from private companies could help offset some of the cost incurred by a particular nation, but private companies typically want some return benefit from their investment so they may not be involved in the early efforts of establishing the bases. There are several countries expressing interest in colonizing our natural satellite and probably eventually many of these plans will merge to result in truly international colonies. But the plans by multiple countries to colonize the moon raise another big issue of whether these countries can stake claims to the regions of the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that no government can lay claim to any celestial body since these objects are considered a common heritage of mankind. However, not all countries currently interested in lunar colonization are signatories to this treaty, and the treaty only applies to governments not private companies. So there are a number of legal questions that also need to be resolved by the international community before colonization of the moon can become reality.