The Moon Could be a Launchpad for Deep Space Exploration
But Is It Feasible?
February 15, 2018, Bruno Jacobsen
In the last few years alone, there's been incredible progress in our dream to explore deep space. Thanks to the efforts of individuals like Elon Musk and organizations like NASA, interest in space talk has spiked again. And so has competition within the industry. Now, some believe that the key to fully realizing our ambitions may lie on the moon.
Exploring Space from the Moon
According to Phys.org, Phil Metzger, a scientist at the University of Central Florida, is developing a process for mining ice on the moon.
Why does that matter?
Pumping heat into lunar ice creates water vapor. This vapor can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, which are required elements in the production of rocket fuel.
By producing rocket fuel on the moon, rockets would then, in theory, be able to launch from there. This has a few advantages compared to launching them from Earth.
First, it would be more efficient to launch from the moon. With 1/6th of Earth's gravity and virtually no atmosphere, the energy required with be less than that on Earth.
And second, Phil Metzger says it could function as a sort of gas stop on our way to exploring space. With our ambitions to put more people in space, and eventually have a working society up there, there's little doubt a "gas station," whether the moon or a space station, would be convenient.
But of course it's not that simple.
Not that inexpensive
Launching rockets from the moon would require people, computers, and materials to be sent to the moon. So the overall would be much higher, at least in the near term.
On top of that, launching rockets from Earth is becoming cheaper too. SpaceX has recently launched its Falcon Heavy successfully, even sending a Tesla Roadster into space. The cost of the rocket, which uses reusable boosters, was estimated to be between $90 and $150 million. One of its alternatives, the Delta IV Heavy, costs around $400 million. So by innovating in rocket design and reusing hardware, costs are expected to come down.
With the expectations of a space industry growing in the near term, it will be interesting to follow its developments closely.
Returning to the moon
But whether we'll have rockets launching from the moon or not, some believe we should at least return there.
The US has recently approved a budget of $19.9 million for NASA. According to the budget, low-Earth orbit will be left to partnerships between private companies and NASA. Some of the rest will be used to return humans to the moon, or at least near it. Plans are already set in motion for an outpost in near-moon space as soon as 2022.
And while not everyone is happy about the new direction of the American agency, NASA's Robert Lightfoot says that "it reflects the administration’s confidence that through NASA leadership, America will lead the way back to the Moon and take the next giant leap from where we made that first small step nearly 50 years ago."
Only time will tell whether these predictions come true.
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