Moon as research outpost, training ground

By Leonard David

MOFFETT FIELD, California  — One of the host of challenges facing NASA as the agency plans to rekindle robotic and human exploration of the moon is the development of a corps of investigators and technologies suitable for long-term missions akin to the research stations that dot Antarctica.

Pete Worden, director of the NASA Ames Research Center, called the establishment of a permanently occupied outpost on the moon as the “next step” toward the settlement of the solar system — one that will be international in nature.

“Unlike the last time we went to the moon…everybody is going to the moon now. There are at least a dozen proposals I know of from various countries to go to the moon,” Worden said. And as NASA makes plans for the scientific research it will conduct there, a key priority is restocking the community of lunar researchers.

Carrying out prolonged research on that distant and dusty world calls for new insight into the impact of the lunar environment on machinery and people. Also, how best to use the moon as an observational platform is being appraised — not only to investigate deep space phenomenon via astrophysical and heliophysical instruments, but also emplacement on the moon of Earth-observing devices.

“This is going to open a new era of scientific understanding of not just the moon and the formation of the Earth-moon system, but how we can live on another world,” Worden told the audience of some 500 leading scientists, engineers and specialists in other disciplines who convened here July 20-23 at the behest of the newly launched NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI). Managed by the Ames Research Center, the NLSI has been set up to tackle scientific pursuits “of the moon…on the moon…and from the moon.”

Lunar science sales job
To fire up interest in Moon exploration, NASA released last June a Cooperative Agreement Notice that solicited proposals to further NLSI objectives as well as the space agency’s overall future lunar exploration needs. Those proposals are due at the end of this month.

In this aerial view, the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is shown (at upper right) along with its predecessor (lower left), which has been in operation for over 50 years.

Ethan Dicks  /  NSF

NASA Ames scientist Chris McKay likened a lunar outpost to the permanent research bases in Antarctica. In this aerial view, the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is shown (at upper right) along with its predecessor (lower left), which has been in operation for over 50 years.

“I think the way to sell it is that we’re going to the Moon as a step beyond,” said Chris McKay, an Ames-based space scientist who convened the NASA Lunar Science Conference. “The other is that the moon is an interesting enough place to stay as well. People talk about exit strategies on the moon…to touch base, leave and go to Mars. I think that’s dumb.”

McKay likened an outpost on the moon to the permanent research base in Antarctica – an encampment that has been operating for 50 years that is a science-driven activity that’s motivated by broad interests of the United States as a nation.

“If we can work in Antarctica for 50 years, and still want to go back and do more…the moon also is at least as interesting as Antarctica,” McKay told SPACE.com. “There’s still a lot of science to be done on the moon. It’s a natural world with natural complexity.”

As for the dispatching of humans to Mars, McKay said: “We’re never going to have a long-term, 50-year plus research base on Mars if we can’t figure out how to do that on the moon. So let’s figure out how to do it on the moon!”

Robust international interest
When looking at the moon, David Morrison, the interim director of the NLSI, said it’s an object that is our nearest neighbor in space…a place that’s going to have a multitude of mostly small satellites and landers over the next decade. “The moon is hot…or cool…depending on what your generation is.”

Morrison said that there is a very robust international interest in lunar exploration. He highlighted the nearly two years of orbiting the moon in 2004-2006 by the European Space Agency’s SMART-1, and also flagged the fact that both Japan and China have orbiters presently circling the Moon, with India to send off its lunar orbiter in a few months.

That global interest in the moon could possibly use more coordination, Morrison noted, with the NLSI perhaps helping in this regard. “But I don’t think we have to go sell the moon. I think it sold itself,” he told SPACE.com.

Image: An inflatable moon base prototype (blue structure at upper right) is tested at the McMurdo station in Antarctica as part of a joint program by NASA, the NSF and the firm ILC Dover.


An inflatable moon base prototype (blue structure at upper right) is tested at the McMurdo station in Antarctica as part of a joint program by NASA, the NSF and the firm ILC Dover.

Going back to the moon is extremely important, said James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, D.C.

“But I’m here to tell you, it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile,” he said, contrasting past lunar exploration with today’s 21st century agenda. “With humans going back, the lunar environment needs to be studied  … and studied well.”

Addressing an audience question regarding stability of lunar science funding given the political winds of change due to a new U.S. President, Green responded: “If I were a betting man I would say the lunar program is here to stay.”

Paul Spudis, a senior lunar scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, suggested that the expertise needed to live and work off-planet can be honed on the moon. Those skills are to “arrive, survive, and thrive.”

“I’ve been trying to get NASA to adopt a mission statement of why we’re going to the moon…not six themes, not 182 different sub-goals.” The sentence that encapsulates the mission is, he said: “We’re going to the moon to learn the skills we need to live and work productively on another world.”

Spudis advised that the challenge for NASA’s vision of space exploration is to architect a program that uses small incremental and cumulative steps to build a capability over time. “It’s not the next NASA program. It is not an entitlement to the science community. It is not a rocket-building program. It is a strategic direction,” he said.


China has completed construction of its fourth Antarctic research station, Taishan, the State Oceanic Administration said Saturday. Photo: Xinhua
China has opened a fourth Antarctic research base, boosting the country’s ambition to build itself into a maritime power, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) said on Saturday.

Taishan station is 76 degrees 58 minutes east longitude and 73 degrees 51 minutes south latitude on the East Antarctic inland ice sheet at an altitude of 2,621 meters.

The site is between Zhongshan and Kunlun stations, which were previously built by the Chinese. The yearly average temperature there is about minus 36.6 degrees Celsius.

Taishan station, which measures 1,000 square meters with its main building 410 square meters, is one of seven international inland research stations on the continent.

President Xi Jinping congratulated on the research base in a letter, saying that scientific research in the Antarctica is important for the exploration of nature and development of mankind.

Xi noted that the base will not only be a platform for China’s scientific research but also for exchanges with scientists from other countries.

Qu Tanzhou, head of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration under the SOA, said that Taishan’s circular structure will help prevent an the accumulation of snow around the station during winter when gales are common in inland areas on the continent.

It can accommodate up to 20 people during the Antarctic summer and is equipped with a runway for fixed-wing aircraft, specially designed for taking off on snow and ice.

The station’s facilities can be used for scientific observation, accommodation, power generation, storage, machinery maintenance, communication and emergency shelter.

“The temperature inside Taishan station can reach 20 degrees Celsius with the help of power generation equipment, which enables people to cook and take showers,” Qu said.

It also has oil storage installations and equipment to support a 400-tonne inland transportation vehicle team.

Qu said construction of its main building has been completed, but conditions are not yet suitable for people to live there.

According to the SOA, the station was built by the team of China’s 30th Antarctic scientific expedition mission. It took a 28-strong crew 53 days to build the station.

Taishan station, which will be used in summers, is expected to be in service for the next 15 years.

“We will build another research station near the Ross Sea, close to the South Pole, which can be used all year round,” Qu said.

China’s first Antarctic expedition in 1984 was the first step toward establishing the four research centers on the continent — Great Wall, Zhongshan, Kunlun, and now Taishan. The first station, Great Wall, opened in 1985.

Noting that China’s polar explorations still lag behind developed countries, Qu said the number of American people undertaking polar research in one year outstripped China’s total number that have been conducting such research over the past 30 years.

China’s leadership outlined the country’s “maritime power” strategy at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in late 2012, calling for increased capacity for exploiting marine resources, protecting the marine environment and safeguarding the country’s maritime rights and interests.