How realistic are China's plans to build a research station on the Moon?

January 17, 2019 by Joshua Chou, The Conversation
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The world is still celebrating the historic landing of China's Chang'e-4 on the dark side of the moon on January 3. This week, China announced its plans to follow up with three more lunar missions, laying the groundwork for a lunar base.

Colonising the Moon, and beyond, has always being a human aspiration. Technological advancements, and the discovery of a considerable source of water close to the lunar poles, has made this idea even more appealing.

But how close is China to actually achieving this goal?

If we focus on the technology currently available, China could start building a base on the Moon today.

The first lunar base

The first would likely be an unmanned facility run by automated robotics – similar to Amazon warehouses – to ensure that the necessary infrastructures and support systems are fully operational before people arrive.

The lunar environment is susceptible to deep vacuum conditions, strong temperature fluctuations and solar radiation, among other conditions hostile to humans. More importantly, we have yet to fully understand the long term impact on the human body of being in space, and on the Moon.

Seeds taken to the Moon by the Chang'e-4 mission have now reportedly sprouted. This is the first time plants have been grown on the Moon, paving the way for a future food farm on the lunar base.

Building a lunar base is no different than building the first oil rig out in the ocean. The logistics of moving construction parts must be considered, feasibility studies must be conducted and, in this case, soil samples must be tested.

China has taken the first step by examining the soil of the lunar surface. This is necessary for building an underground habitat and supporting infrastructure that will shield the base from the harsh surface conditions.

3-D printed everything

Of all the possible technologies for building a lunar base, 3-D printing offers the most effective strategy. 3-D printing on Earth has revolutionised manufacturing productivity and efficiency, reducing both waste and cost.

China's vision is to develop the capability to 3-D print both inside and outside of the lunar base. 3-D printers have the potential to make everything from daily items, like drinking cups, to repair parts for the base.

But 3-D printing in space is a real challenge. It will require new technologies that can operate in the micro gravity environment of the Moon. 3-D printing machines that are able to shape parts in the vacuum of space must be developed.

New materials are required

We know that Earth materials, such as fibre optics, change properties once they are in space. So materials that are effective on Earth, might not be effective on the Moon.

Whatever the intended use of the 3-D printed component, it will have to be resistant to the conditions of lunar environment. So the development of printing material is crucial. Step-by-step, researchers are finding and developing new materials and technologies to address this challenge.

For example, researchers in Germany expect to have the first "ready to use" stainless steel tools to be 3-D printed under microgravity in the near future. NASA also demonstrated 3-D printing technology in zero gravity showing it is feasible to 3-D print in space.

On a larger scale we have seen houses being 3-D printed on Earth. In a similar way, the lunar base will likely be built using prefabricated parts in combination with large-scale 3-D printing.

Examples of what this might look like can be seen to entries in the 3-D printed habitat challenge, which was started by NASA in 2005. The competition seeks to advance 3-D construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth, the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Living on the Moon

So far, we've focused on the technological feasibility of building a lunar base, but we also need to consider the long term effect of lunar living on humans. To date, limited studies have been conducted to examine the the biological impact on human physiology at the cellular level.

We know that the human organs, tissues and cells are highly responsive to gravity, but an understanding of how human cells function and regenerate is currently lacking.

What happens if the astronauts get sick? Will medicine from Earth still work? If astronauts are to live on the Moon, these fundamental questions need to be answered.

In the long term, 3-D bioprinting of human organs and tissues will play a crucial role in sustaining lunar missions by allowing for robotic surgeries. Russia recently demonstrated the first 3-D bioprinter to function under microgravity.

To infinity and beyond

Can China build a lunar base? Absolutely. Can human beings survive on the Moon and other planets for the long term? The answer to that is less clear.

What is certain is that China will use the next 10 to 15 years to develop the requisite technical capabilities for conducting manned lunar missions and set the stage for space exploration.

Explore further: Image: Future moon base

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12 comments

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SkyLight
not rated yet Jan 17, 2019
If we focus on the technology currently available, China could start building a base on the Moon today
And if we focus also on the costs of the infrastructure necessary to such an endeavor, to say nothing of actually building and operating that infrastructure, then it's evident that no nation, including China, is at the moment anywhere near to realizing such an ambitious scheme.
The first lunar base would likely be an unmanned facility run by automated robotics similar to Amazon warehouses
Pie-in-the-sky dreaming.
This is the first time plants have been grown on the Moon, paving the way for a future food farm on the lunar base.
The plants died shortly after the first leaves appeared, frozen as the Lunar night encroached upon the craft.
Building a lunar base is no different than building the first oil rig out in the ocean
Oil rigs are constructed in shipyards, floated out to site and settled in place.

The author has written a piece of Chinese space opera.
Doug_Nightmare
not rated yet Jan 17, 2019
#NotVery. #DaConvo. #FakeNews
dirk_bruere
not rated yet Jan 17, 2019
There are vast caverns under the moon, and apparently skylights to some of them. The "buildings" are already there. The problem then becomes one of sealing them and pressurizing them.
Doug_Nightmare
not rated yet Jan 17, 2019
There are already tenant residents that would have to be evicted, and they'll resist. /sarcasm ya think
guptm
not rated yet Jan 17, 2019
If they install room size canisters on Moon with humans inside, it is likely going to end up the same way as the seedling did, and the canister got destroyed as well.
SamB
5 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2019
I don't think anyone (OK, maybe the Chinese people) are celebrating a ho-hum landing on the dark side of the moon 50 years after the truly historic landing of men on the moon in 1969. If the Chinese really want to outclass the Americans they would have to land men on Mars and then bring them back, before Elon Musk. Then, maybe (if they are humble) the rest of the world might honor the achievement.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Jan 18, 2019
sorry sam, but I sincerely doubt if you would ever celebrate any achievement by anyone who does not have the correct percentage of melanin in their skin or the correct shape of eyes or fails to speak god's own english.
JaxPavan
not rated yet Jan 20, 2019
We're getting ahead of ourselves with 3-D printing teacups.

The first step to any such "plan" for a permanent base on the moon would be to put someone there and then bring them back home safely. So, the question is: When are they going to do that?
JaxPavan
not rated yet Jan 20, 2019
As a practical matter, the easiest way to go about "building" a lunar base is with a good tunneling machine. Less building materials required and superior protection from cosmic rays.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Jan 21, 2019
Yeah jax, I've read those SF stories too.
You might check out the actual drillers & rock-chewers online.
& talk to a real mining engineer,
With experience running those monsters.

If you disassembled the machinery enough that each piece can be lifted & landed (got to pay for both!). Plus, all the supporting hear & tools & personnel & their support needs?
Play it smart. take extra cases of baby-wipes.

Boonies expedition "Rule No.1" You will always run out of those supplies most important to you, first.

On the Moon? I'd guess that rule will not really apply?
I would assume, you will be dead before you finish consuming the critical supplies. Much less whatever is personally important to you.

Though if I can find a space science-buff bookie? I'd be laying bets that you don't even make it out of Earth orbit without screwing up.

What? You assumed that Mighty Mouse will save your day?
Or did you miss the clues that I am an horrible Human Being?

- cont'd -
rrwillsj
not rated yet Jan 21, 2019
- cont'd -
I know, I know. I shouldn't be encouraging this nonsense.
But golly miz jolly, it appeals to my sadistic impulses.

Oh, jax, young fella. Got another math quiz for you.

Across all the tediously repetitious pretensions at literate science fiction?

I have noticed that none of the authors(all fine white gentlemen of the videogame persuasion, I'm sure) have ever dealt with the reality of running tunnelers designed & built for operating in a one-gravity environment.

With any explanation of how that would even work in a 1/6 gravity field.

So jax, the math challenge I have for you?

Determine the kinetic energies produced by the work.

What scale of momentum will be produced when chewing rock.

& the inertial effects to be expected from working at one-sixth of the machine mass.
Such as torque
or vibration
& the minor detail of calculating the heat/friction energies produced by the machinery, motives & drillers.
& disposing of the excess, safely
JaxPavan
not rated yet Jan 22, 2019
That's the challenge, isn't it?

You're right, it probably wouldn't make sense to assemble it there. It might require the design and construction of very heavy lift beyond current capabilities. It would be a lot more expensive than living in flimsy composite huts but folks could live underground without getting cancer and dying from cosmic rays in a year without an atmosphere or magnetic field to protect them.

Another solution is to generate a large enough magnetic field surrounding the living quarters (maybe 100 Teslas), but that's a lot of heavy gear and a LOT more power required. And, you still have vulnerability to micro-meteorites and such.

The fact is if civilization wants to do much more than continue doing what it is doing now in space, reconnaissance and such, it's going to require more, and bigger, and heavier just about everything.

Maybe not much hope of that. Heck we don't even have a machine to cleanup nuclear meltdowns.

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