Saturday, April 9, 2016

Cool Your Jets

When the topic of space colonization is brought up, the first thing that comes to mind for most people is a terraformed Mars. While Mars is a good candidate for eventual colonization, we may have some better options closer to home. These days, the moon is not considered a new frontier, and thus too mundane to consider colonizing, even though we only visited a few times forty years ago. But is it wise to overlook our closest celestial neighbor?

There are a few main factors that we need to take into account when building a space colony, that may show that it’s a better decision to hold off on Mars for now. Our primary concern is feasibility. If world leaders got together tomorrow and decided to throw all their money at colonizing Mars, it would be technologically achievable. However, according to an article in Discover Magazine, the heavy payload and life support means that it would be prohibitively expensive to ship everything out so far with realistic budget constraints. There is also the time factor to consider. If we continue to use the chemical rockets we use today, the journey will take several months to a year, and if there was any emergency, it could be too late by the time we try to send for help.

Now consider the moon, which is at a distance of a couple hundred thousand miles, compared to Mars, which is tens of millions of miles away. Travel to the moon takes a matter of days. Although Mars is given credit for being more earth-like in composition and viability as a terraformation project, the moon has features such as deep craters and caves that could house early colonists.

It is important to remember that terraforming Mars is only a long-term goal, and not something that we could quickly do using current technology. Any near-term colonization on either Mars or the moon would look fairly similar- enclosed environments.

One particularly promising location on the moon is the Shackleton Crater, which is at the south pole. Because it is situated at the edge of the dark and light sides, the area receives good amounts of sunlight but is sheltered compared to the rest of the surface.

A moon colony may benefit the Earth’s economy because it contains resources that could be mined. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found high levels of the isotope, Helium 3, in lunar regolith samples brought back from Apollo missions. Helium 3 is an ingredient required in nuclear fusion, which could spawn an energy revolution once we figure out how to harness its energy. For immediate use, there are many rare-earth elements and metals that lie just beneath the moon’s surface.

Building a moon colony could help us reach Mars and other planets even faster than going there directly. The moon also has very low gravity and little atmosphere, which would make it better than Earth’s surface for a place to launch rockets. In fact, from a logistical viewpoint, building a colony on Mars would be much easier if we had an established base or colony on the moon first. It would be the ideal proving grounds before we make our big leap to the next planet.


- Krishna Rao