Not So Picture Perfect: Proposed Lunar Landing Site Has Drawbacks

Thehype for the "perfect site" for a first moonbase atthe Moon's south pole (Mt. Malapert) and more recently for a rival north polarsite, continues to get good press, and to all appearances, just about everyoneis on the bandwagon. I have serious reservations, however, and have found thatthere are others who share them, but find it difficult or unpromising to buckthe trend.

Anorth polar site has the great advantage of being less than half as far awayfrom the nearside mariacomplex as the South pole. The North pole lies just600 miles north of the North coast of Mare Frigoris, whereas the South pole is 1300 somemiles south of the southern coasts of Mare Humorum, Nubium, and Nectaris.

Industrially,the highland/mare coasts have much to offer with the availability of both majorsuites of regolith; highland regolithenriched in aluminum and calcium, mare regolithenriched in iron and titanium.

Thenearside mare complex embraces all the nearside maria except Crisium in oneinterlinked area of relatively easy to traverse terrain and represents 39% ofnearside. Add to that, highland areas handy to the coasts.

Theproblem with the polar sites is that they are ghettos. These places of"eternal sunlight" are surrounded by very inhospitable terrain. Wewill be on very uneven, even mountainous terrain with very confining andlimited flat areas. The shadows will be extremely long and dark and the shadowpattern will be constantly changing, making visual cues as to one's whereaboutsor heading all but meaningless.

Thewhole idea of going to the poles, is not to tap ice(that's just "frosting on the cake") but to escape two requirements of settlingin anywhere else:

  1. Having to store up power during the two-week long dayspan in order to power equipment and systems during the two-week long nightspan
  2. Being able to avoid the problems inherent in incessant bimonthly cycling between extreme hot and extreme cold.

Ifwe tackle those problems head on from the start, then we own the whole Moon. Ifwe do not, then we only own tiny turflets at one orboth poles while the rest of the Moon remains off limits.

Onpoint [1] - "eternal sunlight"

Ibelieve that the "eternal sunlight" is available not at one precisepoint, but at a string or chain of spots around a high point rim or massif at either pole. Ifthat is the case, it may take a significantly greater mass of equipment shippedto the Moon's pole (either) in order to set up a power system that will havesolar input most (but still not 100%) of the time, than it would be to set up asystem elsewhere that would store up excess dayspansolar input for nightspan draw.

Further,we will still need such a power storage system at either pole, for thoseperiods, however minimized, that the sun doesn't shine.

Tome, the search for the eternal light brings with it the inherent drawbacks of:putting us in very small local areas surrounded by much more challenging polarterrain, putting us where we have no, or greatly reduced, access to iron andother industrially essential elements more abundant in mare regolith.Both poles are highland areas.

puttingus in a place from which it is hard to travel overland to anywhere else stillneeding to have a power storage system on top of a more massive system of solararrays linked by cable around the polar mountain or rim crest having to set upshop in relatively non-flat areas. Laying out the extended solar power arraysystem in mountain terrain, involves high risk to personnel and equipment.

Thiseuphoric "eternal light bandwagon" gripping perhaps most lunar enthusiasts andsupporters seems all very much like the momentary delight and anticipation of the moth that sees a bright porch light orstreet light, and is drawn instinctively, unsuspectingly, to its certain doom.Yes, we need water. But we need more iron and other materials. So is it betterto ship X tons of water to sites away from the poles, or 10X (to grab a figure)tons of other materials to the poles? The answer to that question seems to me to be a "no-brainer".

Butif you are someone who doesn't put much stock in the potential for lunarindustrialization, and who is only attracted to the polar ice reserves becausein addition to a supply of drinking water, they can be turned into rocket fuelto support exploration, not of the Moon, but of the rest of the solar system,then the polar sites offer just what you need. That you bring the Mountain (largertonnage of mare/highland regolith needed) to Mohammed(ice) or bring Mohammed to the Mountain, is not a consideration. But consider:did we build Los Angeles next to Prudhoe Bay?

Youdon't feel trapped at the poles, because the whole idea is to establish a tokenpresence on the Moon, maybe with a token telescope to boot, and to leveragethat for fueling other solar system endeavors - You dismiss prospects of lunarindustrialization and settlement.

NowDavid Schrunk and his team have indeed developed avery ambitious scheme to use peak of eternal light sunshine to power a lunarrailroad network which will eventually extend over much of the Moon. A lot ofwork has gone into that proposal in his Book: The Moon :Resources, Future Development and Colonization, and I deeply respect that, andhighly recommend the book(*).

Thepoles will be part of the lunar future. I just think that they should play asupporting role, not the lead.

Weneed to get our feet wet on the Moon in a way that will allow us to roam freeon the Moon, virtually every-where, not writing off the 99.999% of the Moonwhich is not "eternally sunlit."

Itis not that difficult to design a system that traps excess dayspansolar inputs for nightspan draws -- there are severalworkable options and all ought to be pursued (let the technology pick thewinners!) And/or (I prefer and ) we can rely on anuclear power plant (as backup -- who ever heard of a nuke that never went down?)So let's pursue this harder path, because it is a path that leads toeverywhere, not just to a tiny polar cul de sac.

Ifwe bring earth-moving equipment to the Moon that heats the soil and extractsthe trapped solar wind gasses in the process -- whether we are building roads,grading sites, or gathering material for lunar processing, or to be transformedinto agricultural soils for those plants that do better in geoponics than inhydroponics -- then we will have all the hydrogen we need for drinking, agricultureand other biosphere needs, and for industrial processes in which the hydrogenis recycled.

Ifwe don't want to develop such equipment or bring it to the Moon, then whybother going? The Moon is an uphill battle. If we don't "What is worth doing,it is worth doing right."

Finally,point [2] avoiding temperature swings

Ifwe properly shield our habitat structures, either covering them directly with regolith or regolith-filledsacks, or placing them under regolith shieldedhangers (an option that makes both maintenance and expansion easier), then thetemperature cycles will not affect them. These modules will be at constanttemperatures (the seasonal swing on the Moon being less than 3 degrees(Fahrenheit, I believe) a couple of meters below the surface.

Theproblem, rather, will be for those exposed structures, equipment, and vehicles.We need to build them to withstand the heat of high lunar noon (all the Apollomissions were conducted in "mid-morning" conditions.) as well as the intensecold of the lunar night.

Look,if we are not going to trap ourselves forever in very tightly confined polarsunshine ghettos, we had better learn how to handle the thermal cycles rightaway. If we postpone doing so, that postponement may well last decades, if notforever. We have what happened after the departure of Apollo 17 from the Moonin support of that grim prospect. Let's not pull our lunar punch!

Weneed to build things out of materials with a minimum of thermal expansion -reserving high thermal expansion materials for sheltered usage only.

Weneed to develop seals that can handle the temperature swings. We need todevelop lubricants that can handle this thermal cycling or finding ways ofshading lubricated areas from direct sunlight and heating them when need be.Silicone-based lubricants (oils and greases) are much better thanhydrocarbon-based ones in this respect. Super-magnetic bearings may be part ofthe solution.

ArgumentSummary

Weshould/will go to the poles, eventually, to tap water ice, and use permashade to site telescopes that need cryo-thermalconditions. The North Pole is more conveniently situated to the maria than the south pole -[Galileo photo N Polar area] http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/galileo/images/north.html

Forwater-ice access, considered separately, permashadedeposits are likely to exist up to 400 miles south of the North Pole, or northof the South Pole, for shortened access to the nearest mare coasts. This meansperhaps 200 miles or so from the North coast of Mare Frigoristo the nearest likely north polar ice field, and 900 miles or so from the Southcoast of Mare Nubium to the nearest plausible southpolar ice field. "Go north, young man!"

Thegovernment is likely to build only one lunar outpost. To put it in a place from which we are equipped to go nowhere else, puts usin a self-chosen ghetto. Those to gain most from such a site selection, ateither pole, are those who have their eyes set on refining hydrogen for use ascryogenic rocket fuel for off-lunar transportation, those who are skepticalabout, and uninterested in, the development of the Moon's resources in a waythat will lead to substantial real settlement. At best, we will end up withsomething akin to a North Sea Oil Rig Platform or an Antarctic science outpost.The "escape path" that Schrunk et al. have outlined,while brilliant, is, I fear, unlikely to be followed. We need to tackle thelunar problems of power storage and thermal cycling head on if we really wantthe keys to the Moon at large, not just the key to a "lunar closet."

SoNASA does what it wants to do anyway

Sowhat if the path (and fate) of moths is pursued anyway? In the long run, theMoon will be developed by business and industry, not by the government. Theywill find a way to do it right, because nothing else makes sense. However, theestablishment of a government moonbase at the poleswill be unhelpful. The equipment and systems developed by NASA for a polar sitewill be specialized for conditions that exist nowhere else (except, possibly atthe other pole!). Thus the R&D burden facing commercial and industrialusers will remain untackled. So such a misguidedpolar siting of a NASA base will defer, rather thanhasten, commercial development on the Moon.

Whatis easiest is not always best. The right way is usually the hardest one. If wehave the right stuff we will pick that road. If we do not, we will deserve thedead-end future of the moth fascinated by the light.

Reference:The Moon : Resources, Future Development andColonization by David Schrunk, Burton Sharpe, Bonnie Cooper, and Madhu Thangavelu..

JohnWiley & Sons; (October 22, 1999) ISBN: 0471976350 Hardcover. 432 pgs

Peter Kokh is president of the Lunar Reclamation Society (NSS-Milwaukee)which he helped found in 1986, and since August 2004, President of the MoonSociety. But his opinions above are stated only in his capacity as editor ofMoon Miners' Manifesto (www.moonminersmanifesto.com) a newsletter now in its19th year of continuous monthly publication.

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.