Building a moon base is a huge task, but these tiny satellites will pave the way

Building a moon base is a huge task – here are the tiny satellites that will pave the way
Artist concept of lunar flashlight. Credit: NASA

The space race between the US and Russia ended half a century ago when US astronauts became the first to walk on the moon. Today there's yet another race, prompted by China's successful landing on the far side of the moon and involving private companies as well as national space agencies, to put humans back on the lunar surface.

But building a moon base and actually living on the moon will require careful planning. First, we need to identify and map available lunar resources, including hydrogen and water ice. Such compounds are crucial if we are to create breathable air and , whether for an observatory or a launchpad to go to the outer planets in our solar system.

But sending missions to map the moon for resources in enough detail to enable future establishments is an expensive undertaking that will take a long time. Luckily, there is a shortcut—tiny satellites called CubeSats.

There are many desirable resources on the moon, from the water ice that can give us fuel and air and other volatile elements to titanium. These may have accumulated in permanently shadowed , where it is too cold for them to vaporise.

Prior orbital and landed lunar missions have provided us with a broad overview of lunar surface geology. This knowledge has been boosted by returned lunar samples from the Apollo and Luna sample return missions, as well as recovered lunar meteorites.

In fact, that is how we obtained the evidence for lunar water ice in permanently shadowed regions. We have also learned that the lunar surface is composed of variable amounts of ilmenite and related oxide minerals as well as silicate minerals and nanophase iron (material with grain sizes under 100 nanometres), which are all useful for future construction on the moon.

But this knowledge won't get us far. We also need to know exactly how the substances are distributed and what form they are in. Are they free or bound to something? Are they deep down? How do they interact with the ? We cannot extract them successfully without knowing such things.

If we are to get to the bottom of these questions, we need new low-cost missions that can be achieved more rapidly compared to traditionally large and expensive projects.

Building a moon base is a huge task – here are the tiny satellites that will pave the way
1U CubeSat structure. Credit: wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Nano-satellites

Mini- and micro-satellites, a technology that has matured over the past 40 years to make considerably cheaper, have therefore come forward as a great option. In more recent years, we have even started to consider using nanosatellite platforms—such as CubeSats. These are tiny satellites weighing a few tens of kilograms where a standard platform has been developed onto which different instruments can be fitted.

Robotic exploration of the solar system using nano-satellites is attractive because they are cheaper, less risky and have a shorter development schedule compared to traditional science missions. NASA is therefore planning a series of lunar missions using CubeSats including Lunar Flashlight, LunaH-Map and Lunar Ice-Cube, which will all help improve our understanding of the spatial distribution of water ice in lunar cold traps. However, the spatial resolution of the observations of these missions isn't great—on the order of one to many kilometers.

Given that future lunar landers or rovers destined for permanently shadowed regions will likely have limited mobility, there is a need to improve the spatial accuracy of maps of water ice. I work on another CubeSat mission called the Volatile & Mineralogy Mapping Orbiter (VMMO) funded by the European Space Agency, which will be able to achieve this using laser technology.

VMMO aims to address several key aspects of future lunar exploration. Adopting "12U CubeSat design," which has the dimensions 120 x 10 x 10cm, it will map the location of relevant resources and volatile substances in sufficient quantities to be operationally useful for future lunar settlers to make fuel and breathable air. Its primary science payload is a miniaturized laser instrument that would probe the Shackleton Crater, adjacent to the South Pole, for measuring the abundance of water ice.

Specifically, the instrument uses a lidar, a surveying method that can image an object by illuminating it with laser light and measuring the reflected light with a sensor. Scanning a ten meters wide path, the instrument would take around 260 days to build a high-resolution map of inside the 20 kilometer-diameter crater in this way.

It will also map lunar resources such as ilmenite (TiFeO3) as it flies over sunlit regions, as well as monitoring the distribution of ice and other substances across darkened areas. This will help us understand how condensates migrate across the surface during the two-week lunar night.

The VMMO is due to be launched in 2023. If all goes well, it will help pave the path for European lunar exploration heading towards a village and commercial exploitation in the 2030-2040 timeframe.


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User comments

Aug 30, 2019
Building a Moonbase may not be such a "huge task" if there are lava tubes to move into. The trick is to transport the water from the poles to these lava tube sites since they are pretty far away from each other.

Sep 02, 2019
Moonchine Larva Tubes

When was the last eruption on this Moonchine?
How large are earthly volcano larva tubes
Can we, without enlarging these tubes, live in them?
If we can
We can live in Moonchine larva tubes without enlarging
If
We have
Light
Heating
Food
Machinery
and
Finally, earthling from all walks of life
Engineers
Road workers
Navvies
Botanists
Electricians
Builders
Steelworkers
Bakers
Cobblers
and
The proverbial - Candle stick makers

Oh!, and earthlings who have taken these vows of silence, these holy orders, foreth this Moonchine is a barren, desolate, silent environment on this surface!
Underground - when this candle stick maker falls sick - this Moonchine is permanently pitch black

Fore cubesats would not house this Moonchine mouse

Sep 02, 2019
granville583762

Why do you pollute a comment section with that garbage?

Sep 02, 2019
Building a Moonbase may not be such a "huge task" if there are lava tubes to move into...
There are, and there's an nice primer on why that's a good idea over at the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (formerly the NASA Lunar Science Institute) using Marius Hills as an example; see:
Marius Hills pit offers potential location for lunar base

Sep 02, 2019
No matter where on the Moon they are able to build a Base of operations, the fact remains that Moon dust is so fine that it gets into everything. Astronauts returning to Earth from the Moon missions had the dust clinging to their boots and spacesuits. I personally believe that the Moon surface should be left to rovers and other machinery if any digging is to be done into the regolith.

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