Will a Moon Be­come the New Earth?


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We might not have to ven­ture too far to find a home away from home

For decades NASA’S planet hunters have been search­ing for a new home world light-years away from Earth— even though many of the 182 moons in our so­lar sys­tem of­fer bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions than all the plan­ets put to­gether. Could one of them be the key to the fu­ture of mankind?

The small dot ap­prox­i­mately 390 mil­lion miles away from Earth has still not been fully ex­am­ined. But the ev­i­dence is now clear: Clay min­er­als, foun­tains of wa­ter va­por, and a liq­uid ocean over 60 miles deep—twice the size of all the oceans on Earth com­bined— leave no doubt. This ce­les­tial body called Europa pos­sesses the most im­por­tant build­ing blocks of life and, un­like ex­o­plan­ets ( plan­ets that or­bit a star out­side of our so­lar sys­tem), it’s ac­tu­ally lo­cated a mere stone’s throw from us, cos­mi­cally speak­ing, ac­cord­ing to the NASA tele­scopes that con­tin­u­ously scan the uni­verse.


The as­ton­ish­ing part: Europa is not even a planet—it is a sup­pos­edly dead moon or­bit­ing the gas gi­ant Jupiter. And its fel­low moons Ti­tan, Ganymede, and Ence­ladus are also promis­ing prospects in the on­go­ing search for hab­it­able re­gions in our so­lar sys­tem—and new can­di­dates are al­ways com­ing to our at­ten­tion. The dis­cov­ery is there­fore not only a mile­stone for space ex­plo­ration—it could also be the start­ing point for the most ad­ven­tur­ous jour­ney so far in hu­man his­tory…

Truly, the mys­te­ri­ous satel­lites are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a main fo­cus for re­searchers—for rea­sons of cost: “Through­out the decades NASA has dis­trib­uted bil­lions of dol­lars for the study of plan­ets in our so­lar sys­tem,” says René Heller, an as­tro­physi­cist at Ger­many’s Uni­ver­sity of Göt­tin­gen. “But Mars is and will re­main dead, as shown by any new Rover land­ing.” New Earths ( ex­o­plan­ets) have been sought in other so­lar sys­tems—the Ke­pler Space Tele­scope found more than 4,500 of th­ese in just six years.

The prob­lem: Most of th­ese plan­ets are in­hos­pitable gas worlds such as Jupiter and Saturn—with­out a solid sur­face. Fur­ther­more, they usu­ally ro­tate around their sun too fast, so on one side there is eter­nal day­time and on the other there is per­ma­nent darkness. And due to the ex­treme tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions that oc­cur, mon­ster hur­ri­canes sav­agely sweep across the sur­face.

That’s quite un­like the moons in our so­lar sys­tem, of which there are 182—and count­ing, since new ones are be­ing dis­cov­ered all the time. Their un­beat­able ad­van­tage: Along with the Sun, they have yet an­other ex­ter­nal light and en­ergy source in their sky—their mother planet. Th­ese bod­ies ra­di­ate so­lar en­ergy at their moons and can heat them in­di­rectly as well: Ganymede, Ence­ladus, and Europa re­volve around their plan­ets in an el­lip­ti­cal or­bit, get­ting kneaded by the fluc­tu­a­tions in the in­ten­sity of the grav­i­ta­tional pull in the pro­cess. As a re­sult of tidal fric­tion, the oceans be­neath their thick layer of ice are kept warm—sim­i­lar to a nat­u­ral com­bined heat/ power plant driven by grav­ity.

Com­pared to the ma­jes­tic ice worlds and sub­ter­ranean seas that are be­ing of­fered by Europa, Ganymede, & Co., our Moon seems rather run-of-the-mill. But it too has plenty of po­ten­tial—jo­hann-di­et­rich Wörner, the head of the Euro­pean Space Agency, would like to use it as quickly as pos­si­ble for mankind. Al­though it is not suit­able for use as a per­ma­nent habi­tat, it is ideal as a first step and a stopover on the way. To com­pare: The av­er­age dis­tance to Mars alone is 140,000,000 miles, which is nearly 600 times as far as we are from the Moon. In­ter­est­ingly: It takes more fuel to travel into space from Earth than it does for the en­tire rest of the jour­ney to Mars.


Mr. Wörner seems to be un­der­tak­ing a for­mi­da­ble task: When the ISS burns up over the South Pa­cific in around 10 years, a new per­ma­nent re­search base should al­ready be set up—on the Moon. Wörner is sure: “A Moon Vil­lage brings peo­ple of all na­tions to­gether so they can col­lab­o­rate on re­search,” The for­mer civil en­gi­neer even knows the per­fect lo­ca­tion for the base: the far side of the moon. “There the con­di­tions for re­search are best. We can set up tele­scopes to pro­vide us with a much bet­ter and more un­ob­structed view into space than we have ever had.”

But that’s not all: The Moon could also serve as an im­por­tant sup­plier of raw ma­te­ri­als that are scarce on Earth. Along with plat­inum, ti­ta­nium, and he­lium-3—a gas that’s re­garded as an en­ergy source of the fu­ture— there are thought to be 650 mil­lion tons of wa­ter ice at the lu­nar north pole alone. The hy­dro­gen con­tained therein could be used as rocket fuel. Ad­van­tage: The Moon has only one­sixth of Earth’s grav­ity—so wa­ter ice is eas­ier and cheaper to dis­man­tle.

We want to build a per­ma­nent base sta­tion on the far side of the Moon for re­search pur­poses.” Jo­hann-di­et­rich Wörner, ESA di­rec­tor gen­eral

There­fore it’s no won­der that NASA had be­gun de­vel­op­ing the plans for sys­tem­atic min­ing on the Moon with pri­vate com­pa­nies quite a while ago.

“The Moon is the eighth con­ti­nent of Earth, and it holds vast re­sources for se­cur­ing the fu­ture of hu­man­ity,” says Naveen Jain, Moon Ex­press co­founder and chair­man. The pri­vate com­pany is in part­ner­ship with NASA, which has made it pos­si­ble to de­velop the ro­botic space­craft that will be used in the ex­trac­tion of raw ma­te­ri­als on the Moon.


But in or­der for Wörner’s vi­sion of a Moon Vil­lage to be­come a re­al­ity, all the nec­es­sary build­ing ma­te­ri­als as well as food would first have to be trans­ported to the Moon—about 238,900 miles away from the Earth. There are al­ready con­crete ideas for how to do this: Re­searchers would like to use 3-D print­ing tech­nol­ogy to build the base out of Moon rock. Bri­tish ar­chi­tects have al­ready been able to de­velop an in­flat­able domed struc­ture that pro­tects against mini me­te­orites and space ra­di­a­tion. The res­i­den­tial unit also has to be able to with­stand ex­treme tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions that range from mi­nus 240 to plus 270 de­grees Fahren­heit. “Later on it should be­come pos­si­ble to pro­duce wa­ter from the ex­ist­ing hy­dro­gen and to cul­ti­vate plants in green­houses,” says Ralf Jau­mann, di­rec­tor of plan­e­tary ge­ol­ogy at the Ger­man Aero­space Cen­ter.

The plans are be­ing sup­ported by a re­cent Nasa-fi­nanced U.S. study, which states that within the next five years NASA could fly hu­mans to the Moon, and in 10 to 12 years max­i­mum a per­ma­nent base sta­tion ought to be es­tab­lished there. The es­ti­mated cost is about $10 bil­lion, an in­vest­ment that Wörner is pos­i­tive will pay off in a few years at the lat­est. For ex­am­ple, if we think of the Moon Vil­lage as a kind of test run for fu­ture mis­sions, it could help us fig­ure out how to sur­vive with the re­sources avail­able in an in­hos­pitable world. The Moon is the ideal spring­board on the way to Mars—or even to one of the many ex­o­moons that are just wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered as a new Earth in the vast­ness of outer space.

The launch of the most ex­pen­sive project to search for new habi­tats be­yond Earth will oc­cur by 2024 at the lat­est. Then an ESA tele­scope ob­ser­va­tory mis­sion named PLATO ( Plan­e­tary Tran­sits and Os­cil­la­tions of stars) will be shot into space with a Rus­sian Soyuz rocket in or­der to sniff out thou­sands of new plan­ets. This dif­fers from nor­mal tele­scopes be­cause the ap­pa­ra­tus con­sists of 34 small tele­scopes and cam­eras rather than a sin­gle lens or mir­ror. For six years the craft will scan the uni­verse. Un­like its pre­de­ces­sors, PLATO can si­mul­ta­ne­ously mea­sure the ex­act ra­dius, den­sity, and mass of an ex­o­planet, en­abling it to draw con­clu­sions about the com­po­si­tion of the planet’s at­mos­phere and so for the first time re­li­ably dis­tin­guish light gas gi­ants from the heavy rock plan­ets—life can only de­velop on the lat­ter. As­tro­physi­cist René Heller is con­vinced: Not only are new su­perEarths out there, they are or­bited by so-called hy­brid ce­les­tial bod­ies— moons with plan­e­tary qual­i­ties. Now re­searchers are even imag­in­ing that bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions might pre­vail on th­ese moons than on our own home planet. For Heller the ques­tion is no longer if such heav­enly bod­ies will be dis­cov­ered, but when: “Our first find of an ex­o­moon could oc­cur at any time.”

The Moon is the eighth con­ti­nent of Earth, and it holds vast re­sources for se­cur­ing the fu­ture of hu­man­ity.” Naveen Jain, Moon Ex­press co­founder

OUT­POST IN SPACE Our fu­ture lies on the Moon— the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) is con­vinced of this and is pur­su­ing an am­bi­tious goal: to re­place the ISS (In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion) with an IMS (In­ter­na­tional Moon Sta­tion) within 12 years. Al­ready there

ESA DI­REC­TOR GEN­ERAL Jo­hann-di­et­rich Wörner The 61-year-old has been the head of the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) since last July. His dream: a per­ma­nent base on the Moon.

AS­TRO­PHYSI­CIST René Heller The space re­searcher uses a com­puter to sim­u­late the con­di­tions un­der which lu­nar life would be pos­si­ble.

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