Back to the moon

After many years, we are on our way back to the moon. Moreover Canada will be part of it.

There are many reasons to be excited about the prospect. It marks a new beginning for manned exploration of the solar system and one day possibly the universe beyond.

A space station in lunar orbit will be a better jump off place for space missions to Mars and the other planets. One big advantage is that we won't need those huge booster rockets we use to get off the Earth's surface.

A space station in Earth orbit, like the International Space Station, is better, but even if we build our spacecraft in Earth orbit, the components still have to be lifted off the surface of the Earth.

What if we could produce the materials and maybe do some of the construction on the moon, hopefully using locally mined resources.

There is abundant solar energy and there is no atmosphere. This, in addition to the moon's weaker gravity, makes it much easier to get stuff from the moon's surface into lunar orbit.

We can just lob them upward, and when what we lobbed gets to the right height, an onboard engine could accelerate it to orbital velocity, or someone could rendezvous with it and catch it before it falls down again.

You can't do this from the Earth's surface because we will have to lob a lot harder, and launching things from the ground at high speed will probably end up incinerating them due to atmospheric friction.

Current space missions are launched quite slowly and they don't floor the gas pedal until they are above the atmosphere.

Launching from the moon could be done with a big cannon, like the one in Jules Verne's story, From the Earth to the Moon.

However, that would be hard on what is being launched and even harder on any human crew. One popular concept in science fiction that is perfectly workable in fact is to use electromagnetic acceleration.

The load to be sent to orbit will accelerate along the ground like a maglev (magnetic levitation) train, but to much higher speeds. Then the track would curve upward, launching the vehicle into space.

Having a space station in lunar orbit has huge science potential. If the orbit is arranged so that it can always have a line of sight to Earth (critical for communications), it will see both the front and back of the moon.

The back of the moon would be a fantastic place to put a radio telescope or two. Because the Earth never rises above their horizon they will not have to put up with the growing radio cacophony we are making.

A single cellphone would be far brighter than any cosmic radio source. Being screened from the interference coming from Earth would give researchers access to most of the radio spectrum. In addition, we would be able to observe the cosmic emissions that are blocked by our atmosphere and ionosphere, because the Moon has neither.

That's not to say that working and doing research on the Moon will be easy. Equipment will have to handle big lunar daily temperature changes, from far below zero during the night to around the boiling point of water during the day. The biggest challenge for operating equipment on the moon's surface will probably be the dust.

Over billions of years, the moon has accumulated a layer of very fine dust on its surface, like flour or maybe even finer.

As the Apollo astronauts found, it just gets into everything. Being very dry, it easily picks up an electrostatic charge, which makes it stick to anything it touches. However, we have some pretty dusty places on Earth and we have learned how to live and work there.

We can be very creative when there is a strong enough incentive.

  • At 13:58 PST on March 20, the sun will cross the equator heading north, marking the spring equinox. From then on the sun will spend more than 12 hours above the horizon each day.
  • Mars lies in the southwest after dark.
  • Jupiter rises around 2 a.m.
  • Saturn 4 a.m.
  • Venus 5 a.m., in the predawn glow.
  • The moon will be full on the 20th.

More Skywatching articles

About the Author

Ken Tapping is an astronomer born in the U.K. He has been with the National Research Council since 1975 and moved to the Okanagan in 1990.  

He plays guitar with a couple of local jazz bands and has written weekly astronomy articles since 1992. 

Tapping has a doctorate from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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