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posted by janrinok on Friday April 20 2018, @06:12PM   Printer-friendly
from the refried-space-beans dept.

NASA is going back to the Moon, perhaps permanently, as seen in a new road map (image):

Four months after President Trump directed NASA to return to the Moon, the agency has presented a road map to meet the goals outlined in Space Policy Directive-1. The updated plan shifts focus from the previous "Journey to Mars" campaign back to the Moon, and—eventually—to the Red Planet.

"The Moon will play an important role in expanding human presence deeper into the solar system," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA, in a release issued by the agency.

While the revamped plan may share the same destination as the Apollo program, NASA said it will approach the return in a more measured and sustainable manner. Unlike humanity's first trip to the Moon, the journey back will incorporate both commercial and international partners.

To achieve this, NASA has outlined four strategic goals:

  • Transition low-Earth orbit (LEO) human spaceflight activities to commercial operators.
  • Expand long-duration spaceflight activities to include lunar orbit.
  • Facilitate long-term robotic lunar exploration.
  • Use human exploration of the Moon as groundwork for eventual human missions to Mars and beyond.

This may be the best outcome for the space program. Let NASA focus on the Moon with an eye towards permanently stationing robots and humans there, and let SpaceX or someone else take the credit for a 2020s/early-2030s manned Mars landing. Then work on a permanent presence on Mars using cheaper rocket launches, faster propulsion technologies, better radiation shielding, hardier space potatoes, etc.

Previously: President Trump Signs Space Policy Directive 1


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  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by Immerman on Saturday April 21 2018, @12:10AM (4 children)

    by Immerman (3985) on Saturday April 21 2018, @12:10AM (#669853)

    One of the biggest problems with the moon is that lunar dust is completely unweathered asteroid impact fragments. Basically so many statically-charged microscopic razor-blades just waiting to destroy air gaskets and any other moving surfaces they come in contact with.

    Another major problem is the fact that a lunar day is roughly 709 hours long, rendering solar power relatively ineffective for baseline usage - you'd need enough batteries to last ~15 days of darkness. So you pretty much have to jump straight to high-wattage, low-g nuclear reactors for power.

    Finally - the moon is severely lacking in two basic ecosystem resources that Mars has in abundance - CO2 and water. Given those you can pretty much grow your ecosystem as fast as you can make room for it to expand into, producing unlimited food, air, and cellulose (an incredibly useful and flexible building material - wood is extremely useful, especially with recent "superwood" processing developments, and nanocellulose is transparent, gas impermeable, and roughly as strong as aluminum) while needing to import or mine only nitrogen and trace elements (and there's plenty of nitrogen-bearing minerals on Mars). In comparison a moon base will be completely dependent on Earth to grow its ecosystem and replace any losses at least until a mature mining and chemical synthesis industry is in place.

    That said - a moon base also has a lot more to offer Earth than a Mars colony, which is really too far away to be useful for anything other than a doomsday ark. It's basically a size extra-large asteroid mining destination (coming in at 25x the combined mass of the asteroid belt), with enough gravity to be reasonably comfortable to those of us that evolved on Earth. And if the BFR lives up to it's design goals we should be able to land and return with a substantial payload within a few years, without having to refuel on the surface. That, combined with the much more modest radiation exposure en-route, makes the entire endeavor much more convenient. It lacks the industrial benefits of micro-G asteroid mining, but makes an excellent first step to developing the requisite technologies for vacuum industry, as well as being an excellent source for bulk materials for building orbital habitats and vehicles. (A modest asteroid captured in Earth or lunar orbit would be even better, but that's probably adding decades of orbital manipulation up front)

    So basically, the Moon makes for a wonderful space outpost, while Mars makes for a wonderful colony destination. Since it's roughly the same difficulty and expense to get to either destination, which is more appealing as a "first step" depends entirely on what your goals for getting off planet are. If you're looking to establish a long-term orbital resource for Earth, Moon all the way. If you want to see humanity meaningfully expand beyond Earth, then Mars is where it's at.

    As a long term Mars advocate, I've recently come around to thinking the Moon is a better starting point after all - in large part thanks to the revelation that the BFR should be able to make a round trip without refueling on the surface. That, plus the much shorter transit time, means that a single space ship & tanker combo can provide a MUCH larger supply chain to the Moon, as measured in kg/month. Which in turn means we can afford to experiment much more aggressively, and thus develop useful technologies far faster. If the long-term goal is to have a viable self-sustaining colony on Mars within a century, then spending the first decade or so of resources on developing the Moon seems likely to yield at least as large a long-term payoff for Mars.

    It would also be really nice if we arrived on Mars ready to make reliable self-contained ecosystems, minimizing our environmental impact, and thus greatly increasing our ability to locate native life, if it exists. There's no telling what scientific and technological payoffs may come of studying life that arose completely independently of our own - or has even just been evolving independently for millions or billions of years.

    It'd probably save some lives too - but colonization has always been paid for with the deaths of many early colonists. So long as they went into it with their eyes open, I see no problem with that.

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  • (Score: 2) by takyon on Saturday April 21 2018, @11:50PM (3 children)

    by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {}> on Saturday April 21 2018, @11:50PM (#670192) Journal

    Another major problem is the fact that a lunar day is roughly 709 hours long, rendering solar power relatively ineffective for baseline usage - you'd need enough batteries to last ~15 days of darkness. So you pretty much have to jump straight to high-wattage, low-g nuclear reactors for power.

    NASA is making another Kilopower announcement on May 2: []

    [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Sunday April 22 2018, @02:25PM (2 children)

      by Immerman (3985) on Sunday April 22 2018, @02:25PM (#670345)

      Unfortunately, as cool as kilopower is for small expeditions, it's almost completely unsuited to an actual outpost capable of delivering useful goods to orbit. You really want something in at least the megawatt range for that. 10kW would power your expedition rover and maybe a few telepresence robots beautifully - but even a small outpost would require hundreds of the suckers. Not that you *couldn't* do that to at least get things off the ground, it'd certainly offer some fault tolerance, but that's a lot of individual reactors to deal with.

      Heck, the ISS with its tiny handful of residents and low-power, completely non-industrial mission profile has around 100kW of power production. Even if all we did on the moon was produce rocket fuel for refueling satellites and interplanetary missions, we're going to need a LOT more than that. Especially if we're steadily building out the outpost to become increasingly useful and self-sustaining. I mean, even largely unprocessed moon-rubble would be a valuable commodity as orbital radiation shielding - but collecting it and launching it into orbit requires a lot of power. So does growing crops underground to recycle your biomass.

      Of course, there IS the possibility of harnessing comparatively light, cheap, and simple solar anyway - just operate the heavy industrial processes on a two weeks on/two weeks off cycle, which might actually nicely break up the monotony of living and working from an underground bunker in a seasonless wasteland. Or, you could use a percentage of the synthesized rocket fuel/oxidizer as your "battery" to power things through the night - but what will your efficiency losses be?

      • (Score: 2) by takyon on Sunday April 22 2018, @02:45PM (1 child)

        by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {}> on Sunday April 22 2018, @02:45PM (#670359) Journal

        From "NASA's Kilopower Project Testing a Nuclear Stirling Engine" []:

        Mason said the new technology could provide kilowatts of power and even be upgraded to provide hundreds of kilowatts or even megawatts of power. "We call it the Kilopower project because it gives us a near-term option to provide kilowatts for missions that previously were constrained to use less," Mason said. "But first things first, and our test program is the way to get started."

        10 kW may not be enough, but 40-100 kW could be possible. Multiple units can be brought to the destination for increased power.

        Pair that with battery systems to store the solar energy.

        Or better yet, put solar panels at multiple locations, and run some power lines. Let's get a "power grid" on the Moon.

        While there is no perpetual sunlight [] on the Moon, you can get up to 89% at the north pole, which could be good enough for a base or for your solar panel grid.

        It's a safe bet that initial moon base(s) will not have much industrial output, even if they ought to, so Kilopower could be sufficient. In NASA's own words, "Kilopower could provide safe, efficient and plentiful energy for future robotic and human space exploration missions to the Moon, Mars and destinations beyond."

        [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Sunday April 22 2018, @03:31PM

          by Immerman (3985) on Sunday April 22 2018, @03:31PM (#670371)

          As I said, certainly you *could* stack them like cordwood to get enough power, but that's a lot of individual reactors to deal with.

          They key words in your quote are "exploration missions".

          There's minimal point in a lunar outpost for pure exploration missions - if we go to the immense expense of building an outpost, rather than just landing mobile "exploratory RVs" it should something useful with long term potential, both for the benefit of Earth's space program, and to practice and develop technologies for the much richer targets of Mars and the asteroids. And serve as a meaningful hub for more far-reaching lunar exploration.

          And the benefits could be immense - it's a big dead rock in nearby space with enough gravity to be useful, and 25x the estimated combined mass of the asteroid belt. Admittedly without the asteroids' convenient material concentration or high surface-to-volume ratios, but rocket fuel and radiation shielding are going to be two of the most valuable bulk materials in orbit as we start to get serious about establishing a presence in space. And we pretty much have the technology to start producing those *now*, we just have to get a suitable outpost established on the moon. After all, it's not like we have to produce enough fuel and fuel Heinlein's Armada immediately - a comparative trickle of fuel would be more than sufficient to make much more capable exploratory missions to the outer solar system trivial (or alternatively, similarly capable using much cruder/heavier/cheaper technology) , as well as sending your lunar "RVs" on suborbital hops to whatever locations you want to study this month.

          And since you'll be landing rockets on the moon regularly for supplies, you may as well be able to top off the tanks and haul a bunch of shielding and fuel into orbit on their return journey, instead of flying back basically empty. Pretty much the same expense either way, and it'd be nice to has some orbital research stations that don't require the residents to irradiate themselves as the cost of doing business. It'd certainly be nice to start distinguishing the health problems due to freefall from those due to radiation exposure and/or constantly traveling through the Earth's magnetic field at immense speed.