Thursday, July 4, 2019

Return To Sender

50 years after landing on the Moon there is once again a race to return. Why it has taken this long is open to debate but it would appear the stars have finally aligned with a combination of private industry know-how, government funding, and a renewed interest in space travel. As beautiful as our planet Earth is, it will ultimately die, and we need to develop the technology that will enable us to move on.

In the 1960's the program to get to the Moon was called Apollo but this time around it has been named Artemis. Artemis was the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology and was also the goddess of the Moon. While the project has now officially launched it will still take until 2024 before the first woman and next man land on the Moon following a 3 stage process.

Orion spacecraft

Orion Spacecraft

The first stage is an uncrewed flight to the Moon and back with the Lockheed Martin built Orion spacecraft and, as its testing continues to progress successfully, Artemis 1 is scheduled to take place starting July 2020. Once that has been completed the 2nd Artemis flight will take place with a full crew in 2022. After Artemis 2 the various components of the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway will be put in place in preparation for Artemis 3 in 2024.

The key to the Artemis program is putting a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway into position over the moon that will act as a base station similar to the International Space Station orbiting Earth and using many of the same components such as the docking system and the Canadarm. The LOP-Gateway will provide a place for astronauts to live and serve as a staging point for manned exploration of the Moon. Ultimately it will also act as a base for going to Mars.

Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway

Getting from the LOP-Gateway to the surface of the Moon and back will be using a lunar lander and ascent stage built by Blue Origin (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame). Future missions envision setting up a lunar outpost for various scientific experiments and doing on-site resource utilization and mining. Not only is this practical, if it can supply things like water, oxygen and rocket fuel, it could also be extremely profitable.

Lunar lander & ascent stage

The surface of the Moon has been discovered to be covered with a dust-like material called regolith which in turn contains water, oxygen, various heavy metals, and Helium-3. Helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope of Helium and has the potential to be used as fuel in fusion reactors to produce vast amounts of energy without radiation. Helium-3 is estimated to be worth $5 billion a tonne and there are an estimated one million tonnes of it on the Moon. Only 500 tonnes of Helium-3 could supply all of Earth's energy for a year. Getting some of it back to Earth would be a nice return to the sender.

Artist rendering of a mining base on the Moon

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