After the arguably mixed success that we humans have had with running our home planet (top marks for inventiveness but less success with not killing each other), we have taken an important step towards colonising space, as the US government has given a Florida-based company permission to conduct the first ever private mission to the moon.
The space entrepreneurs of Moon Express aim to send the MX-1 – a craft the size of a washing machine dubbed a “hot rod of space” – to the natural satellite by late 2017. Moon Express is set to unveil the rover in September. In a mission statement that emphasises the moon’s unclear, and potentially corporate, future, Moon Express said their plans for the near future involve mining resources to send back to Earth and burying people’s ashes – including those of co-founder Dr Bob Richards’s father – on its surface.
“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the Moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” Dr Richards announced in an appropriately lofty statement in response to the US government’s verdict.
The glowing orb is a universal source of wonder and inspiration, and so the private sector’s first contact with the moon will likely be met with apprehension. Is humankind wise enough to treat the moon with care, or will we be blindsided by arrogance? Judging by the damage we have done to the Earth, perhaps we should forget about settling in space.
Unfortunately, humanity needs a Plan B. In the long term, we have little choice but to leave our home planet, according to space experts and the Moon Express team.
“We just need one natural disaster to bring the house of cards down,” warns David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at the Open University. A major natural disaster – be it a volcanic eruption or a large meteorite hitting Earth – will make existence on the planet almost impossible.
Before that, the Earth’s resources might deplete, and we may need to consider extracting materials from the moon to manufacture goods in the Earth’s orbit, suggests Dr Malcolm Macdonald, director of the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications at the University of Strathclyde.
The most incredible space images of Earth
The most incredible space images of Earth
1/30 Striking Africa
Explore ESA astronaut Tim Peake's stunning photos of Earth, taken from the International Space Station during his six month mission (captions by Tom Peake)
"The striking colour and texture of Africa Illizi, Algeria"
2/30 Favourite Reef
"Every day spent living in space is a great day, but today was particularly special. I got to speak with one of my inspirational heroes Prof Stephen Hawking and his amazing daughter Lucy, who developed the Principia Space Diary to engage children with STEM subjects. As well as talking about dark matter, quantum entanglement, alien life and light beam powered nanocraft we also got to see an amazing pass over the Bahamas and this - my favourite reef smile emoticon"
3/30 Russia's north-east coast
"Sunrise approaching Russia's frozen north-east coast"
4/30 Hello London
"Hello London! Fancy a run? :) #LondonMarathon"
"50 shades of blue: Bahamas"
"Snow on the mountains next to Yinchuan in China"
7/30 Rocket flames in Africa
"Is it just me or do I see some rocket flames down there? These strange land features are in the Erg Iguidi desert, with its yellow stripes of sand stretching from Algeria to northern Mauritania in the Sahara"
8/30 Stunning colours
"Sunlight reflecting the stunning colours of this Himalayan lake"
9/30 The real Everest
"The real thing: found Everest! Last picture turned out to be third-tallest mountain Kanchengjunga"
10/30 Go Exomars
"Go #Exomars – have a great mission. Earth has more in common with Mars than you might think… #AfricaArt"
"Amazingly clear view of Tenerife"
12/30 Midday winter sun
"Some midday winter sun glinting off Greenland’s snow-capped peaks"
13/30 Sand dunes
"Great texture in these huge sand dunes, Saudi Arabia"
14/30 Dragon Dam
"The dam makes this river look like a dragon’s tail. Oahe Dam north of Pierre, South Dakota in the United States. (North is to the right)"
15/30 Smoking volcano
"Spotted volcano smoking away on Russia’s far east coast this morning – heat has melted snow around top"
16/30 New Zealand
"New Zealand looking stunning in the sunshine. Mt Cook centre left with the Grand Plateau to the front and Mt Tasman (3,497m) to the right of the Grand Plateau. Fox Glacier in the middle then Franz Josef curving right. Tasman Lake (largest at front) is at the foot of the Tasman glacier which runs along the front of them. The Hooker Glacier flows out behind Mt Cook coming down to meet the Mueller Glacier on the left of the photo. The Murchison Glacier is at the front of the photo running parallel with the Tasman Glacier"
17/30 Plankton bloom
"Another great pass over Patagonia and a swirling plankton bloom off the coast"
"We don’t often get such clear views of Alaska"
19/30 Lights along the Nile
"Lights along the Nile stretching into the distance from Cairo"
"The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ clear to see amongst the volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia"
"I’m guessing there was an impressive storm going on under that cumulonimbus cloud"
22/30 Night Sahara
"Night-time Sahara – you can really see how thin the Earth’s atmosphere is in this picture"
"Tokyo and Japanese coast. This image shows most of Japan with the largest mass of light corresponding to Tokyo. The white lights on the left are fishing boats"
24/30 Morning sun volcanoes
"Morning sun striking active volcanoes in Guatemala"
25/30 Tapajos River
"The vast waters of the Tapajos river, Amazonia"
"Beautiful glacial river water flowing from this Patagonian ice field Lake Viedma, West is up"
27/30 Dubai Palms
"Minus the #Dragon photobomb this time..."
28/30 Sediment in Ethiopia
"Sediment spilling into this mountain lake, Ethiopia"
"We have phases of ‘short nights’ on the International Space Station – sunlight is nearly always visible right now. No prizes for guessing where this is…"
30/30 Panama Canal
"From one mighty ocean to another – ships passing through the Panama canal"
“If you want to survive long-term as a civilisation, you need more than one basket to put your eggs in. We will want self-sustaining bases in space or on other worlds. The alternative is to just quietly all lie down and die. Do we want humans to exist or not?” asks Professor Rothery.
For all our sins, most of us would answer “yes”. Since the 1960s, the moon has been seriously considered as an alternative home for humans, explains Dr Aleks Scholz, the observatory director at the University of St Andrews.
But creating an escape route is far from easy. First, robots will likely conduct scientific experiments on the moon, and take advantage of the fact that is lack an atmosphere to study other celestial objects. China, for instance, has had a telescope on the moon since 2013 as part of its unmanned Chang’e 3 mission.
Its atmosphere-less state, however, is one of many reasons why the moon is largely inhospitable to us puny humans.
“Challenges for humans living on the moon include the very long lunar night, the lack of important chemical elements, such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, the risk of meteor hits and the weak magnetic field. The absence of an atmosphere causes temperature changes and radiation exposure, which makes the surface inhospitable,” says Dr Scholz. The moon also has a sixth of the Earth’s gravity – meaning our muscles and bones would waste away. Astronaut Tim Peake, who experienced zero gravity for six months, described the feeling of returning to earth as “the world’s worst hangover”.
Inhabiting the moon for any prolonged period would therefore be extremely expensive, says Professor Rothery. We would (hopefully) experiment with small colonies on the moon before being forced to flee Earth, but transporting goods 384,400km is pricey, and talk that trillions of dollars of valuable metals and other resources hiding inside the moon is yet unproven, he adds. Helium 3, which could be used for fuel, is currently the only attraction.
Instead of dreaming of joining the man on the moon, we should use the natural satellite to understand how humans cope in space, says Professor Rothery, in preparation for venturing out to Mars. The red planet boasts some atmosphere, evidence of liquid water – as Nasa discovered last year – and has twice as much gravity as the moon.
If we can do it for the International Space Station, why not large space missions like to the Moon and Mars? However, it will require a high degree of cooperation. Perhaps it will act to help unite the aims of countries
“It's perfectly feasible we will have sent humans to Mars in 10 years on a scientific expedition,” says Professor Rothery. Business magnate Elon Musks hopes so too. He belives his SpaceX project will see humans make their first steps on Mars by 2026.
Still, the issue of funding remains, and governments are unlikely to foot the entire bill. A mixed economy of space tourism, mining, and scientific research – whether private or public-funded – is the most likely financial model. This could even involve a reality TV show, suggests Professor Rothery.
“Give it 100 years and we could a viable community of humans on Mars,” he adds. At first, communities will be small and dependent on the Earth to a certain extent, but eventually, he predicts, the colonies will become autonomous and self-sustaining.
In the very distant future, when the issues that travelling vast distances between solar systems to other habitable planets in our galaxy are dealt with, experts believe we could do away with planets altogether. In a Star Trek-like model, we could inhabit the spacecrafts built sustain to life for quests that could take thousands of years. Nasa have already asked researchers to imagine habitats that orbit the earth, where tens of thousands of space travellers could be self-sufficient.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. A huge amount of international cooperation is required for humanity to take any of these brave steps. John Bridges, professor of planetary science at Leicester University’s Space Research Centre, believes that such missions have the potential to unite world powers.
“If we can do it for the International Space Station, why not large space missions like to the Moon and Mars? However, it will require a high degree of co-operation. Perhaps it will act to help unite the aims of countries,” he says.
Dr Macdonald cautions that we should learn from our behaviour on Earth as we look to explore the universe. We don’t have another choice.
“Humans have a habit of being rather quarrelsome with each other. We have a habit of overusing resources. It would be good to work with the environment rather than work against it. If we were leaving Earth we’d be faced with very hostile environments.”
We have no choice but to venture into space – but we should proceed with uncharacteristic caution.Reuse content