Will a Moon Become the New Earth?
PLANETS ARE SO YESTERDAY!
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.
DO MOONS MAKE BETTER PLANETS?
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.
WILL A MOON BASE SOON TAKE OVER FOR THE ISS?
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.
HOW DO YOU GET A VILLAGE TO 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