Colonization of the Moon

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1986 artist concept

The colonization of the Moon is a proposed establishment of permanent human communities or robotic industries[1][2] on the Moon.

Discovery of lunar water at the lunar poles by Chandrayaan-1 has renewed interest in the Moon. Polar colonies could also avoid the problem of long lunar nights – about 354 hours,[3] a little more than two weeks – and take advantage of the Sun continuously, at least during the local summer (there is no data for the winter yet).[4]

Permanent human habitation on a planetary body other than the Earth is one of science fiction's most prevalent themes. As technology has advanced, and concerns about the future of humanity on Earth have increased, the argument that space colonization is an achievable and worthwhile goal has gained momentum.[5][6] Because of its proximity to Earth, the Moon has been seen as the most obvious natural expansion after Earth. There are also various projects in near future by space tourism startup companies for tourism on the Moon.


Space colonization
Concept art from NASA showing astronauts entering a lunar outpost

The notion of a lunar colony originated before the Space Age. In 1638 Bishop John Wilkins wrote A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet, in which he predicted a human colony on the Moon.[7] Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), among others, also suggested such a step.[8] From the 1950s onwards, a number of concepts and designs have been suggested by scientists, engineers and others.

In 1954, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke proposed a lunar base of inflatable modules covered in lunar dust for insulation.[9] A spaceship, assembled in low Earth orbit, would launch to the Moon, and astronauts would set up the igloo-like modules and an inflatable radio mast. Subsequent steps would include the establishment of a larger, permanent dome; an algae-based air purifier; a nuclear reactor for the provision of power; and electromagnetic cannons to launch cargo and fuel to interplanetary vessels in space.

In 1959, John S. Rinehart suggested that the safest design would be a structure that could "[float] in a stationary ocean of dust", since there were, at the time this concept was outlined, theories that there could be mile-deep dust oceans on the Moon.[10] The proposed design consisted of a half-cylinder with half-domes at both ends, with a micrometeoroid shield placed above the base.

Project Horizon[edit]

Project Horizon was a 1959 study regarding the United States Army's plan to establish a fort on the Moon by 1967.[11] Heinz-Hermann Koelle, a German rocket engineer of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) led the Project Horizon study. It was proposed that the first landing would be carried out by two "soldier-astronauts" in 1965 and that more construction workers would soon follow. It was posited that through numerous launches (61 Saturn I and 88 Saturn II), 245 tons of cargo could be transported to the outpost by 1966.

Lunex Project[edit]

Lunex Project was a US Air Force plan for a manned lunar landing prior to the Apollo Program in 1961. It envisaged a 21-airman underground Air Force base on the Moon by 1968 at a total cost of $7.5 billion.

Sub-surface base[edit]

In 1962, John DeNike and Stanley Zahn published their idea of a sub-surface base located at the Sea of Tranquility.[9] This base would house a crew of 21, in modules placed four meters below the surface, which was believed to provide radiation shielding on par with Earth's atmosphere. DeNike and Zahn favored nuclear reactors for energy production, because they were more efficient than solar panels, and would also overcome the problems with the long lunar nights. For the life support system, an algae-based gas exchanger was proposed.

Recent proposals[edit]

In 2007 Jim Burke of the International Space University in France said people should plan to preserve humanity's culture in the event of a civilization-stopping asteroid impact with Earth. A Lunar Noah's Ark was proposed.[12] Subsequent planning may be taken up by the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG).[13][14][15]

In 2016 Johann-Dietrich Wörner, the new Chief of ESA, proposed the International Moon Village that incorporates 3D printing, though funding for such a village has yet to materialize.[16]

Moon exploration[edit]

Exploration through 2017[edit]

Exploration of the lunar surface by spacecraft began in 1959 with the Soviet Union's Luna program. Luna 1 missed the Moon, but Luna 2 made a hard landing (impact) into its surface, and became the first artificial object on an extraterrestrial body. The same year, the Luna 3 mission radioed photographs to Earth of the Moon's hitherto unseen far side, marking the beginning of a decade-long series of unmanned Lunar explorations.

Responding to the Soviet program of space exploration, US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 told the U.S. Congress on May 25: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." The same year the Soviet leadership made some of its first public pronouncements about landing a man on the Moon and establishing a Lunar base.

Manned exploration of the lunar surface began in 1968 when the Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the Moon with three astronauts on board. This was mankind's first direct view of the far side. The following year, the Apollo 11 Lunar module landed two astronauts on the Moon, proving the ability of humans to travel to the Moon, perform scientific research work there, and bring back sample materials.

Additional missions to the Moon continued this exploration phase. In 1969 the Apollo 12 mission landed next to the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, demonstrating precision landing capability. The use of a manned vehicle on the Moon's surface was demonstrated in 1971 with the Lunar Rover during Apollo 15. Apollo 16 made the first landing within the rugged Lunar highlands. However, interest in further exploration of the Moon was beginning to wane among the American public. In 1972 Apollo 17 was the final Apollo Lunar mission, and further planned missions were scrapped at the directive of President Nixon. Instead, focus was turned to the Space Shuttle and manned missions in near Earth orbit.

In addition to its scientific returns, the Apollo program also provided valuable lessons about living and working in the lunar environment.[17]

The Soviet manned lunar programs failed to send a manned mission to the Moon. However, in 1966 Luna 9 was the first probe to achieve a soft landing and return close-up shots of the Lunar surface. Luna 16 in 1970 returned the first Soviet Lunar soil samples, while in 1970 and 1973 during the Lunokhod program two robotic rovers landed on the Moon. Lunokhod 1 explored the Lunar surface for 322 days, and Lunokhod 2 operated on the Moon about four months only but covered a third more distance. 1974 saw the end of the Soviet Moonshot, two years after the last American manned landing. Besides the manned landings, an abandoned Soviet moon program included building the moonbase "Zvezda", which was the first detailed project with developed mockups of expedition vehicles[18] and surface modules.[19]

In the decades following, interest in exploring the Moon faded considerably, and only a few dedicated enthusiasts supported a return. However, evidence of Lunar ice at the poles gathered by NASA's Clementine (1994) and Lunar Prospector (1998) missions rekindled some discussion,[20][21] as did the potential growth of a Chinese space program that contemplated its own mission to the Moon.[22] Subsequent research suggested that there was far less ice present (if any) than had originally been thought, but that there may still be some usable deposits of hydrogen in other forms.[23] However, in September 2009, the Chandrayaan probe of India, carrying an ISRO instrument, discovered that the Lunar regolith contains 0.1% water by weight, overturning theories that had stood for 40 years.[24]

In 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush called for a plan to return manned missions to the Moon by 2020 (since cancelled – see Constellation program). On June 18, 2009 NASA’s LCROSS/LRO mission to the moon was launched. The LCROSS mission was designed to acquire research information to assist with future lunar exploratory missions, and was scheduled to conclude with a controlled collision of the craft on the lunar surface.[25] LCROSS's mission concluded as scheduled with its controlled impact on October 9, 2009.[26][27]

In 2010, due to reduced congressional NASA appropriations, President Barack Obama halted the Bush administration's earlier lunar exploration initiative, and directed a generic focus on manned missions to asteroids and Mars, as well as extending support for the International Space Station.[28]

Planned manned lunar missions 2018 - 2037[edit]

In 2015 Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, stated that Russia plans to place a cosmonaut on the Moon by 2030.[29] Japan also has plans to land a man on the moon by 2030,[30] while the People's Republic of China is currently planning to land a human on the Moon by 2036 (see Chinese Lunar Exploration Program).[31] The United States currently (2017) has plans to send a manned space mission to orbit (but not to land on) the moon in 2021.[32] While the US Trump administration has called for a return of manned missions to the lunar surface, it has currently (2017) not authorized any funding for any such lunar missions in the next 20 years, and instead the current administration has actually reduced the NASA space exploration budget from earlier levels.[33][34]

Water discovered on Moon[edit]

Beginning with a full-frame Moon in this video, the camera flies to the lunar south pole and shows areas of permanent shadow. Realistic shadows evolve through several months.

On 24 September 2009 Science magazine reported that the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) on the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) Chandrayaan-1 had detected water on the Moon.[35] M3 detected absorption features near 2.8–3.0 µm (0.00011–0.00012 in) on the surface of the Moon. For silicate bodies, such features are typically attributed to hydroxyl- and/or water-bearing materials. On the Moon, the feature is seen as a widely distributed absorption that appears strongest at cooler high latitudes and at several fresh feldspathic craters. The general lack of correlation of this feature in sunlit M3 data with neutron spectrometer H abundance data suggests that the formation and retention of OH and H2O is an ongoing surficial process. OH/H2O production processes may feed polar cold traps and make the lunar regolith a candidate source of volatiles for human exploration.

The Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), an imaging spectrometer, was one of the 11 instruments on board Chandrayaan-1, whose mission came to a premature end on 29 August 2009.[36] M3 was aimed at providing the first mineral map of the entire lunar surface.

Lunar scientists had discussed the possibility of water repositories for decades. They are now increasingly "confident that the decades-long debate is over" a report says. "The Moon, in fact, has water in all sorts of places; not just locked up in minerals, but scattered throughout the broken-up surface, and, potentially, in blocks or sheets of ice at depth." The results from the Chandrayaan mission are also "offering a wide array of watery signals."[37][38]

On November 13, 2009 NASA announced that the LCROSS mission had discovered large quantities of water ice on the Moon around the LCROSS impact site at Cabeus. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, relativized the term 'large': "The 30 m crater ejected by the probe contained 10 million kilograms of regolith. Within this ejecta, an estimated 100 kg of water was detected. That represents a proportion of ten parts per million, which is a lower water concentration than that found in the soil of the driest deserts of the Earth. In contrast, we have found continent sized regions on Mars, which are 600,000 parts per million, or 60% water by weight."[39] Although the Moon is very dry on the whole, the spot where the LCROSS impactor hit was chosen for a high concentration of water ice. Dr. Zubrin's computations are not a sound basis for estimating the percentage of water in the regolith at that site. Researchers with expertise in that area estimated that the regolith at the impact site contained 5.6 ± 2.9% water ice, and also noted the presence of other volatile substances. Hydrocarbons, material containing sulfur, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and ammonia were present.[40]

In March 2010, NASA reported that the findings of its mini-SAR radar aboard Chandrayaan-1 were consistent with ice deposits at the Moon's north pole. It is estimated there is at least 600 million tons of ice at the north pole in sheets of relatively pure ice at least a couple of meters thick.[41]

In March 2014, researchers who had previously published reports on possible abundance of water on the Moon, reported new findings that refined their predictions substantially lower.[42]

Advantages and disadvantages[edit]

Placing a colony on a natural body would provide an ample source of material for construction and other uses in space, including shielding from cosmic radiation. The energy required to send objects from the Moon to space is much less than from Earth to space. This could allow the Moon to serve as a source of construction materials within cis-lunar space. Rockets launched from the Moon would require less locally produced propellant than rockets launched from Earth. Some proposals include using electric acceleration devices (mass drivers) to propel objects off the Moon without building rockets. Others have proposed momentum exchange tethers (see below). Furthermore, the Moon does have some gravity, which experience to date indicates may be vital for fetal development and long-term human health.[43][44] Whether the Moon's gravity (roughly one sixth of Earth's) is adequate for this purpose, however, is uncertain.

In addition, the Moon is the closest large body in the Solar System to Earth. While some Earth-crosser asteroids occasionally pass closer, the Moon's distance is consistently within a small range close to 384,400 km. This proximity has several advantages:

  • A lunar base could be a site for launching rockets with locally manufactured fuel to distant planets such as Mars. Launching rockets from the Moon would be easier than from Earth because the Moon's gravity is lower, requiring a lower escape velocity. A lower escape velocity would require less propellant, but there is no guarantee that less propellant would cost less money than that required to launch from Earth.
  • The energy required to send objects from Earth to the Moon is lower than for most other bodies.
  • Transit time is short. The Apollo astronauts made the trip in three days and future technologies could improve on this time.
  • The short transit time would also allow emergency supplies to quickly reach a Moon colony from Earth, or allow a human crew to evacuate relatively quickly from the Moon to Earth in case of emergency. This could be an important consideration when establishing the first human colony.
  • If the Moon were colonized then it could be tested if humans can survive in low gravity. Those results could be utilized for a viable Mars colony as well.
  • The round trip communication delay to Earth is less than three seconds, allowing near-normal voice and video conversation, and allowing some kinds of remote control of machines from Earth that are not possible for any other celestial body. The delay for other Solar System bodies is minutes or hours; for example, round trip communication time between Earth and Mars ranges from about eight to forty minutes. This, again, could be particularly valuable in an early colony, where life-threatening problems requiring Earth's assistance could occur.
  • On the Lunar near side, the Earth appears large and is always visible as an object 60 times brighter than the Moon appears from Earth, unlike more distant locations where the Earth would be seen merely as a star-like object, much as the planets appear from Earth. As a result, a Lunar colony might feel less remote to humans living there.
  • Building observatory facilities on the Moon from lunar materials allows many of the benefits of space based facilities without the need to launch these into space.[45] The lunar soil, although it poses a problem for any moving parts of telescopes, can be mixed with carbon nanotubes and epoxies in the construction of mirrors up to 50 meters in diameter.[46][47] It is relatively nearby; astronomical seeing is not a concern; certain craters near the poles are permanently dark and cold, and thus especially useful for infrared telescopes; and radio telescopes on the far side would be shielded from the radio chatter of Earth.[48] A lunar zenith telescope can be made cheaply with ionic liquid.[49]
  • A farm at the Lunar North Pole could provide eight hours of sunlight per day during the local summer by rotating crops in and out of the sunlight which is continuous for the entire summer. A beneficial temperature, radiation protection, insects for pollination, and all other plant needs could be artificially provided during the local summer for a cost. One estimate suggested a 0.5 hectare space farm could feed 100 people.[50]

There are several disadvantages to the Moon as a colony site:

  • The long lunar night would impede reliance on solar power and require that a colony exposed to the sunlit equatorial surface be designed to withstand large temperature extremes (about 95 K (−178.2 °C) to about 400 K (127 °C)). An exception to this restriction are the so-called "peaks of eternal light" located at the Lunar north pole that are constantly bathed in sunlight. The rim of Shackleton Crater, towards the Lunar south pole, also has a near-constant solar illumination. Other areas near the poles that get light most of the time could be linked in a power grid. The temperature 1 meter below the surface of the Moon is estimated to be near constant over the period of a month varying with latitude from near 220 K (−53 °C) at the equator to near 150 K (−123 °C) at the poles.[51]
  • The Moon is highly depleted in volatile elements, such as nitrogen and hydrogen. Carbon, which forms volatile oxides, is also depleted. A number of robot probes including Lunar Prospector gathered evidence of hydrogen generally in the Moon's crust consistent with what would be expected from solar wind, and higher concentrations near the poles.[52] There had been some disagreement whether the hydrogen must necessarily be in the form of water. The mission of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) proved in 2009 that there is water on the Moon.[53] This water exists in ice form perhaps mixed in small crystals in the regolith in a colder landscape than people have ever mined. Other volatiles containing carbon and nitrogen were found in the same cold trap as ice.[40] If no sufficient means is found for recovering these volatiles on the Moon, they would need to be imported from some other source to support life and industrial processes. Volatiles would need to be stringently recycled. This would limit the colony's rate of growth and keep it dependent on imports. The transportation cost of importing volatiles from Earth could be reduced by constructing the upper stage of supply ships using materials high in volatiles, such as carbon fiber and plastics.[citation needed] The 2006 announcement by the Keck Observatory that the binary Trojan asteroid 617 Patroclus,[54] and possibly large numbers of other Trojan objects in Jupiter's orbit, are likely composed of water ice, with a layer of dust, and the hypothesized large amounts of water ice on the closer, main-belt asteroid 1 Ceres, suggest that importing volatiles from this region via the Interplanetary Transport Network may be practical in the not-so-distant future. However, these possibilities are dependent on complicated and expensive resource utilization from the mid to outer Solar System, which is not likely to become available to a Moon colony for a significant period of time.
  • It is uncertain whether the low (one-sixth g) gravity on the Moon is strong enough to prevent detrimental effects to human health in the long term. Exposure to weightlessness over month-long periods has been demonstrated to cause deterioration of physiological systems, such as loss of bone and muscle mass and a depressed immune system. Similar effects could occur in a low-gravity environment, although virtually all research into the health effects of low gravity has been limited to zero gravity.
  • The lack of a substantial atmosphere for insulation results in temperature extremes and makes the Moon's surface conditions somewhat like a deep space vacuum.[citation needed] It also leaves the Lunar surface exposed to half as much radiation as in interplanetary space (with the other half blocked by the Moon itself underneath the colony), raising the issues of the health threat from cosmic rays and the risk of proton exposure from the solar wind. Lunar rubble can protect living quarters from cosmic rays.[55] Shielding against solar flares during expeditions outside is more problematic.
  • When the Moon passes through the magnetotail of the Earth, the plasma sheet whips across its surface. Electrons crash into the Moon and are released again by UV photons on the day side but build up voltages on the dark side.[56] This causes a negative charge build up from −200 V to −1000 V. See Magnetic field of the Moon.
  • The lack of an atmosphere increases the chances of the colony being hit by meteors. Even small pebbles and dust (micrometeoroids) have the potential to damage or destroy insufficiently protected structures.
  • Moon dust is an extremely abrasive glassy substance formed by micrometeorites and unrounded due to the lack of weathering. It sticks to everything, can damage equipment, and it may be toxic.[57]
  • Growing crops on the Moon faces many difficult challenges due to the long lunar night (354 hours), extreme variation in surface temperature, exposure to solar flares, nitrogen-poor soil, and lack of insects for pollination. Due to the lack of any atmosphere on the Moon, plants would need to be grown in sealed chambers, though experiments have shown that plants can thrive at pressures much lower than those on Earth.[58] The use of electric lighting to compensate for the 354-hour night might be difficult: a single acre of plants on Earth enjoys a peak 4 megawatts of sunlight power at noon. Experiments conducted by the Soviet space program in the 1970s suggest it is possible to grow conventional crops with the 354-hour light, 354-hour dark cycle.[59] A variety of concepts for lunar agriculture have been proposed,[60] including the use of minimal artificial light to maintain plants during the night and the use of fast growing crops that might be started as seedlings with artificial light and be harvestable at the end of one Lunar day.[61]
  • One of the less obvious difficulties lies not with the Moon itself but rather with the political and national interests of the nations engaged in colonization. Assuming that colonization efforts were able to overcome the difficulties outlined above – there would likely be issues regarding the rights of nations and their colonies to exploit resources on the lunar surface, to stake territorial claims and other issues of sovereignty which would have to be agreed upon before one or more nations established a permanent presence on the Moon. The ongoing negotiations and debate regarding the Antarctic is a good case study for prospective lunar colonization efforts in that it highlights the numerous pitfalls of developing/inhabiting a location that is subject to the claims of multiple sovereign nations.


Russian astronomer Vladislav V. Shevchenko proposed in 1988 the following three criteria that a Lunar outpost should meet:[citation needed]

  • good conditions for transport operations;
  • a great number of different types of natural objects and features on the Moon of scientific interest; and
  • natural resources, such as oxygen. The abundance of certain minerals, such as iron oxide, varies dramatically over the Lunar surface.[62]

While a colony might be located anywhere, potential locations for a Lunar colony fall into three broad categories.

Polar regions[edit]

There are two reasons why the north pole and south pole of the Moon might be attractive locations for a human colony. First, there is evidence for the presence of water in some continuously shaded areas near the poles.[63] Second, the Moon's axis of rotation is sufficiently close to being perpendicular to the ecliptic plane that the radius of the Moon's polar circles is less than 50 km. Power collection stations could therefore be plausibly located so that at least one is exposed to sunlight at all times, thus making it possible to power polar colonies almost exclusively with solar energy. Solar power would be unavailable only during a lunar eclipse, but these events are relatively brief and absolutely predictable. Any such colony would therefore require a reserve energy supply that could temporarily sustain a colony during lunar eclipses or in the event of any incident or malfunction affecting solar power collection. Hydrogen fuel cells would be ideal for this purpose, since the hydrogen needed could be sourced locally using the Moon's polar water and surplus solar power. Moreover, due to the Moon's uneven surface some sites have nearly continuous sunlight. For example, Malapert mountain, located near the Shackleton crater at the Lunar south pole, offers several advantages as a site:

  • It is exposed to the Sun most of the time (see Peak of Eternal Light); two closely spaced arrays of solar panels would receive nearly continuous power.[64]
  • Its proximity to Shackleton Crater (116 km, or 69.8 mi) means that it could provide power and communications to the crater. This crater is potentially valuable for astronomical observation. An infrared instrument would benefit from the very low temperatures. A radio telescope would benefit from being shielded from Earth's broad spectrum radio interference.[64]
  • The nearby Shoemaker and other craters are in constant deep shadow, and might contain valuable concentrations of hydrogen and other volatiles.[64]
  • At around 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) elevation, it offers line of sight communications over a large area of the Moon, as well as to Earth.[64]
  • The South Pole-Aitken basin is located at the Lunar south pole. This is the second largest known impact basin in the Solar System, as well as the oldest and biggest impact feature on the Moon,[65] and should provide geologists access to deeper layers of the Moon's crust.

NASA chose to use a south-polar site for the Lunar outpost reference design in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study chapter on Lunar Architecture.[65]

At the north pole, the rim of Peary Crater has been proposed as a favorable location for a base.[66] Examination of images from the Clementine mission appear to show that parts of the crater rim are permanently illuminated by sunlight (except during Lunar eclipses).[66] As a result, the temperature conditions are expected to remain very stable at this location, averaging −50 °C (−58 °F).[66] This is comparable to winter conditions in Earth's Poles of Cold in Siberia and Antarctica. The interior of Peary Crater may also harbor hydrogen deposits.[66]

A 1994[67] bistatic radar experiment performed during the Clementine mission suggested the presence of water ice around the south pole.[20][68] The Lunar Prospector spacecraft reported enhanced hydrogen abundances at the south pole and even more at the north pole, in 2008.[69] On the other hand, results reported using the Arecibo radio telescope have been interpreted by some to indicate that the anomalous Clementine radar signatures are not indicative of ice, but surface roughness.[70] This interpretation, however, is not universally agreed upon.[71]

A potential limitation of the polar regions is that the inflow of solar wind can create an electrical charge on the leeward side of crater rims. The resulting voltage difference can affect electrical equipment, change surface chemistry, erode surfaces and levitate Lunar dust.[72]

Equatorial regions[edit]

The Lunar equatorial regions are likely to have higher concentrations of helium-3 (rare on Earth but much sought after for use in nuclear fusion research) because the solar wind has a higher angle of incidence.[73] They also enjoy an advantage in extra-Lunar traffic: The rotation advantage for launching material is slight due to the Moon's slow rotation, but the corresponding orbit coincides with the ecliptic, nearly coincides with the Lunar orbit around Earth, and nearly coincides with the equatorial plane of Earth.

Several probes have landed in the Oceanus Procellarum area. There are many areas and features that could be subject to long-term study, such as the Reiner Gamma anomaly and the dark-floored Grimaldi crater.

Far side[edit]

The Lunar far side lacks direct communication with Earth, though a communication satellite at the L2 Lagrangian point, or a network of orbiting satellites, could enable communication between the far side of the Moon and Earth.[74] The far side is also a good location for a large radio telescope because it is well shielded from the Earth.[75] Due to the lack of atmosphere, the location is also suitable for an array of optical telescopes, similar to the Very Large Telescope in Chile.[45] To date, there has been no ground exploration of the far side.

Scientists have estimated that the highest concentrations of helium-3 will be found in the maria on the far side, as well as near side areas containing concentrations of the titanium-based mineral ilmenite. On the near side the Earth and its magnetic field partially shields the surface from the solar wind during each orbit. But the far side is fully exposed, and thus should receive a somewhat greater proportion of the ion stream.[76]

Lunar lava tubes[edit]

High Sun view of a 100 meter deep Lunar pit crater that may provide access to a lava tube

Lunar lava tubes are a potential location for constructing a Lunar base. Any intact lava tube on the Moon could serve as a shelter from the severe environment of the Lunar surface, with its frequent meteorite impacts, high-energy ultra-violet radiation and energetic particles, and extreme diurnal temperature variations. Lava tubes provide ideal positions for shelter because of their access to nearby resources. They also have proven themselves as a reliable structure, having withstood the test of time for billions of years.

An underground colony would escape the extreme of temperature on the Moon's surface. The average temperature on the surface of the Moon is about −5 °C. The day period (about 354 hours) has an average temperature of about 107 °C (225 °F), although it can rise as high as 123 °C (253 °F). The night period (also 354 hours) has an average temperature of about −153 °C (−243 °F).[77] Underground, both periods would be around −23 °C (−9 °F), and humans could install ordinary heaters.[78]

One such lava tube was discovered in early 2009.[79]



There have been numerous proposals regarding habitat modules. The designs have evolved throughout the years as mankind's knowledge about the Moon has grown, and as the technological possibilities have changed. The proposed habitats range from the actual spacecraft landers or their used fuel tanks, to inflatable modules of various shapes. Some hazards of the Lunar environment such as sharp temperature shifts, lack of atmosphere or magnetic field (which means higher levels of radiation and micrometeoroids) and long nights, were unknown early on. Proposals have shifted as these hazards were recognized and taken into consideration.

Underground colonies[edit]

Some suggest building the Lunar colony underground, which would give protection from radiation and micrometeoroids. This would also greatly reduce the risk of air leakage, as the colony would be fully sealed from the outside except for a few exits to the surface.

The construction of an underground base would probably be more complex; one of the first machines from Earth might be a remote-controlled excavating machine. Once created, some sort of hardening would be necessary to avoid collapse, possibly a spray-on concrete-like substance made from available materials.[80] A more porous insulating material also made in-situ could then be applied. Rowley & Neudecker have suggested "melt-as-you-go" machines that would leave glassy internal surfaces.[81] Mining methods such as the room and pillar might also be used. Inflatable self-sealing fabric habitats might then be put in place to retain air. Eventually an underground city can be constructed. Farms set up underground would need artificial sunlight. As an alternative to excavating, a lava tube could be covered and insulated, thus solving the problem of radiation exposure.

Surface colonies[edit]

Variant for habitat creation on the surface or over lava tube
A NASA model of a proposed inflatable module

A possibly easier solution would be to build the Lunar base on the surface, and cover the modules with Lunar soil. The Lunar regolith is composed of a unique blend of silica and iron-containing compounds that may be fused into a glass-like solid using microwave energy.[82] Blacic has studied the mechanical properties of lunar glass and has shown that it is a promising material for making rigid structures, if coated with metal to keep moisture out.[83] This may allow for the use of "Lunar bricks" in structural designs, or the vitrification of loose dirt to form a hard, ceramic crust.

A Lunar base built on the surface would need to be protected by improved radiation and micrometeoroid shielding. Building the Lunar base inside a deep crater would provide at least partial shielding against radiation and micrometeoroids. Artificial magnetic fields have been proposed[84][85] as a means to provide radiation shielding for long range deep space manned missions, and it might be possible to use similar technology on a Lunar colony. Some regions on the Moon possess strong local magnetic fields that might partially mitigate exposure to charged solar and galactic particles.[86]

In a turn from the usual engineer-designed lunar habitats, London-based Foster + Partners architectural firm proposed a building construction 3D-printer technology in January 2013 that would use Lunar regolith raw materials to produce Lunar building structures while using enclosed inflatable habitats for housing the human occupants inside the hard-shell Lunar structures. Overall, these habitats would require only ten percent of the structure mass to be transported from Earth, while using local Lunar materials for the other 90 percent of the structure mass.[87] "Printed" Lunar soil will provide both "radiation and temperature insulation. Inside, a lightweight pressurized inflatable with the same dome shape will be the living environment for the first human Moon settlers."[87] The building technology will include mixing Lunar material with magnesium oxide, which will turn the "moonstuff into a pulp that can be sprayed to form the block" when a binding salt is applied that "converts [this] material into a stone-like solid."[87] Terrestrial versions of this 3D-printing building technology are already printing 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) of building material per hour with the next-generation printers capable of 3.5 metres (11 ft) per hour, sufficient to complete a building in a week.[87]

Moon Capital[edit]

In 2010, The Moon Capital Competition offered a prize for a design of a Lunar habitat intended to be an underground international commercial center capable of supporting a residential staff of 60 people and their families. The Moon Capital is intended to be self-sufficient with respect to food and other material required for life support. Prize money was provided primarily by the Boston Society of Architects, Google Lunar X Prize and The New England Council of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.[88]

3D printed structures[edit]

On January 31, 2013, the ESA working with an independent architectural firm, tested a 3D-printed structure that could be constructed of lunar regolith for use as a Moon base.[89]


Nuclear power[edit]

A nuclear fission reactor might fulfill most of a Moon base's power requirements.[90] With the help of fission reactors, one could overcome the difficulty of the 354 hour Lunar night. According to NASA, a nuclear fission power station could generate a steady 40 kilowatts, equivalent to the demand of about eight houses on Earth.[90] An artist’s concept of such a station published by NASA envisages the reactor being buried below the Moon's surface to shield it from its surroundings; out from a tower-like generator part reaching above the surface over the reactor, radiators would extend into space to send away any heat energy that may be left over.[91]

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators could be used as backup and emergency power sources for solar powered colonies.

One specific development program in the 2000s was the Fission Surface Power (FSP) project of NASA and DOE, a fission power system focused on "developing and demonstrating a nominal 40 kWe power system to support human exploration missions. The FSP system concept uses conventional low-temperature stainless steel, liquid metal-cooled reactor technology coupled with Stirling power conversion." As of 2010, significant component hardware testing had been successfully completed, and a non-nuclear system demonstration test was being fabricated.[92][needs update]

Helium-3 mining could be used to provide a substitute for tritium for potential production of fusion power in the future.

Solar energy[edit]

Solar energy is a possible source of power for a Lunar base. Many of the raw materials needed for solar panel production can be extracted on site. However, the long Lunar night (354 hours) is a drawback for solar power on the Moon's surface. This might be solved by building several power plants, so that at least one of them is always in daylight. Another possibility would be to build such a power plant where there is constant or near-constant sunlight, such as at the Malapert mountain near the Lunar south pole, or on the rim of Peary crater near the north pole. Since lunar regolith contains structural metals like iron and aluminum, solar panels could be mounted high up on locally-built towers that might rotate to follow the sun. A third possibility would be to leave the panels in orbit, and beam the power down as microwaves.

The solar energy converters need not be silicon solar panels. It may be more advantageous to use the larger temperature difference between Sun and shade to run heat engine generators. Concentrated sunlight could also be relayed via mirrors and used in Stirling engines or solar trough generators, or it could be used directly for lighting, agriculture and process heat. The focused heat might also be employed in materials processing to extract various elements from Lunar surface materials.

Energy storage[edit]

In the early days,[clarification needed] a combination of solar panels for "day-time" operation and fuel cells for "night-time" operation could be used.[according to whom?]

Fuel cells on the Space Shuttle have operated reliably for up to 17 Earth days at a time. On the Moon, they would only be needed for 354 hours (14 34 days) – the length of the Lunar night. Fuel cells produce water directly as a waste product. Current fuel cell technology is more advanced than the Shuttle's cells – PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) cells produce considerably less heat (though their waste heat would likely be useful during the Lunar night) and are lighter, not to mention the reduced mass of the smaller heat-dissipating radiators. This makes PEMs more economical to launch from Earth than the shuttle's cells. PEMs have not yet been proven in space.

Combining fuel cells with electrolysis would provide a "perpetual" source of electricity – solar energy could be used to provide power during the Lunar day, and fuel cells at night. During the Lunar day, solar energy would also be used to electrolyze the water created in the fuel cells – although there would be small losses of gases that would have to be replaced.

Even if lunar colonies could provide themselves access to a near-continuous source of solar energy, they would still need to maintain fuel cells or an alternate energy storage system to sustain themselves during lunar eclipses and emergency situations.


Earth to Moon[edit]

Conventional rockets have been used for most Lunar explorations to date. The ESA's SMART-1 mission from 2003 to 2006 used conventional chemical rockets to reach orbit and Hall effect thrusters to arrive at the Moon in 13 months. NASA would have used chemical rockets on its Ares V booster and Lunar Surface Access Module, that were being developed for a planned return to the Moon around 2019, but this was cancelled. The construction workers, location finders, and other astronauts vital to building, would have been taken four at a time in NASA's Orion spacecraft.

Proposed concepts of Earth-Moon transportation are Space elevators.[93][94]

On the surface[edit]

A Lunar rover being unloaded from a cargo spacecraft. Conceptual drawing

Lunar colonists will want the ability to transport cargo and people to and from modules and spacecraft, and to carry out scientific study of a larger area of the Lunar surface for long periods of time. Proposed concepts include a variety of vehicle designs, from small open rovers to large pressurized modules with lab equipment, and also a few flying or hopping vehicles.

Rovers could be useful if the terrain is not too steep or hilly. The only rovers to have operated on the surface of the Moon (as of 2008) are the three Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicles (LRV), developed by Boeing, and the two robotic Soviet Lunokhods. The LRV was an open rover for a crew of two, and a range of 92 km during one Lunar day. One NASA study resulted in the Mobile Lunar Laboratory concept, a manned pressurized rover for a crew of two, with a range of 396 km. The Soviet Union developed different rover concepts in the Lunokhod series and the L5 for possible use on future manned missions to the Moon or Mars. These rover designs were all pressurized for longer sorties.[95]

If multiple bases were established on the Lunar surface, they could be linked together by permanent railway systems. Both conventional and magnetic levitation (Maglev) systems have been proposed for the transport lines. Mag-Lev systems are particularly attractive as there is no atmosphere on the surface to slow down the train, so the vehicles could achieve velocities comparable to aircraft on the Earth. One significant difference with lunar trains, however, is that the cars would need to be individually sealed and possess their own life support systems.

For difficult areas, a flying vehicle may be more suitable. Bell Aerosystems proposed their design for the Lunar Flying Vehicle as part of a study for NASA. Bell also developed the Manned Flying System, a similar concept.

Surface to space[edit]

Launch technology[edit]

A Lunar base with a mass driver (the long structure that goes toward the horizon). NASA conceptual illustration

Experience so far indicates that launching human beings into space is much more expensive than launching cargo.

One way to get materials and products from the Moon to an interplanetary way station might be with a mass driver, a magnetically accelerated projectile launcher. Cargo would be picked up from orbit or an Earth-Moon Lagrangian point by a shuttle craft using ion propulsion, solar sails or other means and delivered to Earth orbit or other destinations such as near-Earth asteroids, Mars or other planets, perhaps using the Interplanetary Transport Network.

A Lunar space elevator could transport people, raw materials and products to and from an orbital station at Lagrangian points L1 or L2. Chemical rockets would take a payload from Earth to the L1 Lunar Lagrange location. From there a tether would slowly lower the payload to a soft landing on the lunar surface.

Other possibilities include a momentum exchange tether system.

Launch costs[edit]

  • Estimates of the cost per unit mass of launching cargo or people from the Moon vary and the cost impacts of future technological improvements are difficult to predict. An upper bound on the cost of launching material from the Moon might be about $40,000,000 per kilogram, based on dividing the Apollo program costs by the amount of material returned.[96][97][98] At the other extreme, the incremental cost of launching material from the Moon using an electromagnetic accelerator could be quite low. The efficiency of launching material from the Moon with a proposed electric accelerator is suggested to be about 50%.[99] If the carriage of a mass driver weighs the same as the cargo, two kilograms must be accelerated to orbital velocity for each kilogram put into orbit. The overall system efficiency would then drop to 25%. So 1.4 kilowatt-hours would be needed to launch an incremental kilogram of cargo to low orbit from the Moon.[100] At $0.1/kilowatt-hour, a typical cost for electrical power on Earth, that amounts to $0.16 for the energy to launch a kilogram of cargo into orbit. For the actual cost of an operating system, energy loss for power conditioning, the cost of radiating waste heat, the cost of maintaining all systems, and the interest cost of the capital investment are considerations.
  • Passengers cannot be divided into the parcel size suggested for the cargo of a mass driver, nor subjected to hundreds of gravities acceleration. However, technical developments could also affect the cost of launching passengers to orbit from the Moon. Instead of bringing all fuel and oxidizer from Earth, liquid oxygen could be produced from lunar materials and hydrogen should be available from the lunar poles. The cost of producing these on the Moon is yet unknown, but they will be more expensive than production costs on Earth. The situation of the local hydrogen is most open to speculation. As a rocket fuel, hydrogen could be extended by combining it chemically with silicon to form silane,[101] which has yet to be demonstrated in an actual rocket engine. In the absence of more technical developments, the cost of transporting people from the Moon will be an impediment to colonization.

Surface to and from cis-Lunar space[edit]

A cis-Lunar transport system has been proposed using tethers to achieve momentum exchange.[102] This system requires zero net energy input, and could not only retrieve payloads from the Lunar surface and transport them to Earth, but could also soft land payloads on to the Lunar surface.

Economic development[edit]

For long term sustainability, a space colony should be close to self-sufficient. Mining and refining the Moon's materials on-site – for use both on the Moon and elsewhere in the Solar System – could provide an advantage over deliveries from Earth, as they can be launched into space at a much lower energy cost than from Earth. It is possible that large amounts of matter will need to be launched into space for interplanetary exploration in the 21st century, and the lower cost of providing goods from the Moon might be attractive.[80]

Space-based materials processing[edit]

In the long term, the Moon will likely play an important role in supplying space-based construction facilities with raw materials.[95] Zero gravity in space allows for the processing of materials in ways impossible or difficult on Earth, such as "foaming" metals, where a gas is injected into a molten metal, and then the metal is annealed slowly. On Earth, the gas bubbles rise and burst, but in a zero gravity environment, that does not happen. The annealing process requires large amounts of energy, as a material is kept very hot for an extended period of time. (This allows the molecular structure to realign.)

Exporting material to Earth[edit]

Exporting material to Earth in trade from the Moon is more problematic due to the cost of transportation, which will vary greatly if the Moon is industrially developed (see "Launch costs" above). One suggested trade commodity, Helium-3 (3He) from the solar wind, is thought to have accumulated on the Moon's surface over billions of years, but occurs only rarely on Earth. Helium might be present in the Lunar regolith in quantities of 0.01 ppm to 0.05 ppm (depending on soil). In 2006 3He had a market price of about $1500 per gram ($1.5M per kilogram), more than 120 times the value per unit weight of gold and over eight times the value of rhodium.

In the future 3He may have a role as a fuel in thermonuclear fusion reactors.[103] It should require about 100 tonnes of helium-3 to produce the electricity that Earth uses in a year and there should be enough on the moon to provide that much for 10,000 years.[104]

Exporting propellant obtained from lunar water[edit]

To reduce the cost of transport, the Moon could store propellants produced from lunar water at one or several depots between the Earth and the Moon, to resupply rockets or satellites in Earth orbit.[105] The Shackleton Energy Company estimate investment in this infrastructure could cost around $25 billion.[106]

Solar power satellites[edit]

Gerard K. O'Neill, noting the problem of high launch costs in the early 1970s, came up with the idea of building Solar Power Satellites in orbit with materials from the Moon.[107] Launch costs from the Moon will vary greatly if the Moon is industrially developed (see "Launch costs" above). This proposal was based on the contemporary estimates of future launch costs of the space shuttle.

On 30 April 1979 the Final Report "Lunar Resources Utilization for Space Construction" by General Dynamics Convair Division under NASA contract NAS9-15560 concluded that use of Lunar resources would be cheaper than terrestrial materials for a system comprising as few as thirty Solar Power Satellites of 10 GW capacity each.[108]

In 1980, when it became obvious NASA's launch cost estimates for the space shuttle were grossly optimistic, O'Neill et al. published another route to manufacturing using Lunar materials with much lower startup costs.[109] This 1980s SPS concept relied less on human presence in space and more on partially self-replicating systems on the Lunar surface under telepresence control of workers stationed on Earth.

See also[edit]



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General references

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]