NASA has announced that they will begin construction of Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway by 2020 while Space-X explains how they will drill for water and other important resources on Mars by 2022.
As governments and corporations become more serious about space colonization proponents debate among themselves about whether or not we should target the Moon or Mars respectively. Those who argue for the former contest that since it is so close to Earth it makes an easy “testing ground” for future missions. Furthermore they propose that the moon be used as a launchpad to Mars and other planetary bodies when the time comes.
There are useful resources on the Moon such as water and regolith that could potentially be refined to create fuel and material for future projects. All it would take is a competent system of robotics connected to an assembly line of 3D printers. For example we could use automated drills to mine regolith, rovers or drones to transport the raw ore to an automated refinery that creates molten paste for 3D printing habitats or even spacecraft components. Of course, that would reduce the cost of launching repeat missions to Mars by eliminating Earths gravitational well as an obstacle.
An international assembly including the US geological survey was held last month to discuss how we could mine ice water on the moon. It was proposed that we use a series of mirrors for concentrating sunlight in to an icey crater, melting the ice in to liquid water for extraction. Then that water can then be used to drink or create combustible hydrogen/oxygen fuel via electrolysis. The more we can automate this process the better, perhaps even linking water extraction to robotic drones that need refueling.
Even know gravity on the moon is negligible compared to Earth, it certainly still exists… so NASA wants to build an orbital space station between the Earth and Moon called Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway that will act as a preliminary way-point for future missions to the Moon and Mars.
That way during the Lunar construction phase organizations do not have to keep trudging back and forth between Earth/Mars gravity, instead – “checking in” to LOP-G could help them better circumnavigate the Moon from a topological perspective.
NASA is co-operating with 4 other nations including Europe, Russia, Japan, China to begin construction of LOP-G in 2020. The project has been allocated billions in funding and includes power and propulsion elements, a habitation module, logistics elements and the vestibule.
Another organization that could play a key role in colonization is The Blue Origin project, lead by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The former has been selected by NASA. along with United Launch Alliance, to create new technologies for space exploration and colonization. Later plans include the establishment of an international “moon village” for permanent habitation.
The latter organization, moon village is a type of open invitation blueprint whereby nations participate in constructing a tightly knit community of habitable domes on the moon. Though international in scope moon village is primarily composed of European ideologues like head of ESA Jean Warner. About 150 structures – both governmental, scientific, and industrial, have been designed by the organization which now includes over 30 countries.
Proponents for Mars colonization argue that the planet has more resources and opportunities due to it’s thicker atmosphere. Since terraforming offers the possibility of replicating Earthlike conditions or at the very least reducing inhospitability proponents contest that Mars thicker atmosphere justifies our first attempts at colonization. Not only because of the innate potential for terraforming the planet, but also security – as a thicker atmosphere guarantees a certain level of insulation from solar cosmic rays. The red planet is also roughly twice the size of the moon offering more room for countries and corporations to “move in” if some sort of apocalyptic event were to arise.
Elon Musk corporation Space-X has an incredibly ambitious plan for colonizing Mars by 2024. They’ve taken in to account a serious amount of detail, arguably more then NASA. In summary, they want to launch a bunch of giant rockets to the red planet, complete with the necessary equipment for full fledged mining operations. The second fleet of “Big Falcon Rockets’ will include 2 BFRs full of colonists, that can also double as a preliminary habitat while the first “cities” are being constructed.
The first step to colonization requires procuring a consistent supply of water. As was mentioned before – water can be used for life support or split in to hydrogen and oxygen fuel. A lake of liquid water has recently been discovered beneath the south pole by the Italian Space Agencies ground penetrating radar. Furthermore there is plenty of ice on the red planet that can be extracted using different methods.
Another step requires mining for a particular building material. Space-X has set there eyes on regolith (basically just rock), clay, and gypsum. Ideally once mined these materials could be melted to a sufficient liquidity for extruding out of a 3D printer to create habitats.
Kris Zacny Director of Exploration Technologies at Space-X spoke about these topics at the Mars Society Convention.
Based on the depth and targeted material, different methods of mining are required. Some drills can be extended by unravelling wire while other drills are made of a riveted tube that can heat up materials beneath the surface and suck the resulting water vapour out of the ground.
Though it wasn’t specified such a strategy could also reduce steps in between mining and 3D printing. Imagine a drill that heats up the material underground, and siphons it upward to be extruded by a 3D printer directly above. Perhaps this water vapour could be allowed just the right amount of time to sublimate creating an appropriate density for 3D printers to extrude an igloo like habitat similar to the one NASA came up with.
At the Mars Society Convention a couple other mining strategies were elaborated upon. These include
* water jetting
* sonic percussive scoops
* and pneumatic mining
Most of these have already been tested and verified. Remote locations like Greenland, Lake Vostok, and Australia offer the closest possible approximation to this kind of environment. Other systems like the wire drilling concept are going to finish testing by 2019.
A region of Mars called Arcadia Planetia has been selected by Space-X as a prime location for colonization. It’s located at 35 degrees latitude – far enough from the poles that solar power is abundant. The area also harbours a reservoir of pure ice about 10 metres beneath the rocky regolith, offering a source of fuel and life support. Furthermore, it’s located in particularly smooth flat area for safe landing, and has a lower elevation, also making it easier to land.