Next time NASA goes to the moon, it intends to stay. Within the framework of the Artemis program, the US space agency plans to maintain, for the first time, human presence on a celestial body other than Earth.
But building a lunar base is no small feat. You will need power generators, vehicles, and habitats, and the space industry is racing to meet technological challenges.
“It’s the Super Bowl of engineering,” Neil Davis, principal systems engineer on the Lunar Terrain vehicle at aerospace firm Dynetics, told AFP.
Dynetics revealed the prototype design for a lunar rover last month at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
But it probably won’t be until the subsequent Artemis missions — 7 and beyond — “that we begin to look at adding permanent habitations on the surface,” said NASA Associate Administrator Jim Frye.
The landing of Artemis 3, the first planned landing, won’t happen until later in the decade, so habitat construction won’t begin before the 2030s.
He added that the base will likely include multiple sites to diversify the objectives of scientific exploration and to provide more flexibility for landing operations.
energy and communications
Despite such a distant schedule, the companies are already chomping.
“Step zero is communications,” Joe Landon, CEO of Crescent Space, a new Lockheed Martin subsidiary dedicated to lunar services, told AFP.
“Think when you move into a new apartment, you have to connect your phone to the Internet first.”
Starting with a pair of satellites, the company wants to become the moon’s Internet and GPS provider.
This would relieve pressure on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which threatens to overheat in the face of all upcoming missions, including special missions.
Landon estimates that the moon market will be worth “$100 billion over the next 10 years.”
Next: turn on the lights.
Astrobotic, which has 220 employees, is one of three companies selected by NASA to develop solar panels.
They have to be placed vertically because at the moon’s south pole—the intended destination because the water is in the form of ice—the sun barely peeps above the horizon.
Mike Provenzano, the company’s director of lunar surface systems, said the star panels, about 60 feet (18 meters) high, will be connected by cables that stretch for many miles (kilometers).
The solar arrays will be installed on vehicles that can operate them in different locations.
For its science missions, NASA has tasked industry with developing a non-pressurized — that is, open-top — two-person vehicle, ready by 2028.
Unlike the Apollo rovers, it will also have to operate autonomously on outings without an astronaut.
This means surviving frigid moon nights, which can last two weeks, with temperatures dropping to around -280 degrees Fahrenheit (-170 degrees Celsius).
Many companies started.
Lockheed Martin has partnered with General Motors, drawing on the auto giant’s expertise in electric and off-road vehicles.
Dynetics, a subsidiary of engineering giant Leidos, has joined NASCAR.
Its prototype, which will achieve a top speed of nine miles per hour (15 kilometers per hour), includes a robotic arm and braided metal wheels like textiles to increase traction on the sandy surface and handle any rocks it encounters.
“But at the same time, they already have a lot of openings to the outside so they don’t collect that sand and carry it with us,” Davis said.
Moon dust, or regolith, is particularly challenging because, lacking erosion by water or wind, it is almost as abrasive as glass.
NASA has not yet announced the selected company or companies.
In the long term, NASA is working with the Japanese space agency JAXA on a pressurized vehicle, where astronauts would not need to wear their suits.
Finally, the crew will need a place to hang their helmets and call home.
NASA has awarded a $57.2 million contract to Texas-based Icon, which specializes in 3D printing, to develop the technology needed to build roads, moon landing ramps, and eventually, housing.
The idea is to use lunar soil as a material. Other companies, such as Lockheed Martin, are developing concepts for inflatable habitats.
“The nice thing is you can land on the moon and blow it up and now there’s a much larger size for the crew to live and work in,” Kirk Cherryman, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s lunar exploration campaign, told AFP.
Inside would be bedrooms, a kitchen, space for scientific instruments, etc. – all mounted on a frame, so the habitat could be mobile.
The basic concept behind returning to the Moon under Artemis is to help NASA prepare for missions much further to Mars.
“Whatever money we have to spend to develop these systems on the Moon, we want those same systems to be viable for going to Mars,” Sherriman said.
© 2023 AFP
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