Dream on: Lunar pioneers reach for the stars

A BRANCH of science that has been languishing for decade will be revived. In the 1970s, the Moon was declared dry (by the Apollo missions, which landed on the equivalent of the Equator) and Mars declared dead (by the Viking landers).

People who wanted us to set up permanent bases on both those bodies were turned back from their grand plans, as others asked: why spend billions of dollars or pounds of public money to go to places which are so hostile, and useless?

In the past 18 months though, Mars has been declared to have had life (at least, scientists reckoned so) and now the Moon to have water.

Suddenly, space travel is back on the agenda. For not only does the Moon have water at its poles, but planetary geologists reckon there is water at Mars's poles too.

Water matters because humans need at least two litres a day to survive. However, carrying it out of the Earth's gravitational field is very expensive because it is heavy and can't be compressed: two litres of water will always take up two litres of space and weigh two kilograms. Raising that out of the Earth's gravity will cost pounds 14,000 in fuel. Providing enough for a permanent lunar colony would require regular supply ships and that makes a base on a dry Moon impractical.

But if there is water already there, everything changes. "When you're thinking of a permanent lunar base, this makes it possible," said Dr Ellen Stofan, a Nasa scientist who is planning studies for water on Mars.

Ice can be melted for drinking; and it can be electrolysed (using the free solar power) into oxygen for breathing, and hydrogen as a rocket fuel.

"It's terribly exciting in terms of potential, as a science base if nothing else." It would be a perfect site for astronomical observation: if you thought the Hubble Space Telescope produced impressive pictures, wait until there's a Moon Observatory.

But it's not the science value that people see. The Moon could be used as an assembly base for new rockets which would take off for more distant targets: initially Mars, but in time even further afield.

A low-gravity base would be an ideal staging post on the way to other planets. For instance, a Mars mission could send its rocket to the Moon partly-fuelled, or even partly-built; then you could finish building it in low gravity. "Anything that we don't have to lift out of the Earth's gravity is a saving," said Dr Stofan.

A further advantage is that if something goes wrong, it's easier to escape from the Moon than from a mission to Mars. "It's only three days away," explained Dr Stofan. "You can bail out more easily - it's a whole different thing if you're eight or nine months out."

How soon will it arrive, and how big will it be? That depends on how easy it is to build reliable shelters - safe from meteorites - and to mine the ice. Certainly, by the middle of the next century there will be something permanent there.

How much will it cost? Certainly, billions. "It will take an international effort," said Dr Stofan. "But I think that's the way everybody would want to do it." However, she doesn't see it supplanting the present efforts to build an International Space Station to replace the aging Mir. "The space station is the first step in working outside the Earth's atmosphere," said Dr Stofan. "But you have to do it slowly. We've never tried to build anything in space. People forget how complex it is: they see Star Trek on TV and think 'Oh, we're there already'. Really, it's much more complicated, and we have to do it one step at a time."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Advisor - (HR, L&D) - Rugby

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and well established busi...

Recruitment Genius: Product Owner - Business Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Product Owner/Business Analyst is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Technician

£28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea