MOSCOW — Piles of lunar rocks and soil, plus a mountain of photographs, are the trophies inherited by scientists in the aftermath of the Cold War's so-called "Space Race." By the end of the 1970s, the Moon was long forgotten.
In the decades since, the priority has been given to geospace, a celestial region that extends from Earth's atmosphere to the outer reaches of its magnetic field. Advancements in research triggered a surge of renewed interest — and we have now accumulated the necessary technologies for the colonization of our planet's lone satellite.
Back when the Soviet Union's unmanned Lunokhod-1 landed on the Moon in 1970, many were certain that a lunar settlement was just around the corner. The USSR space program went as far as to build a specialized mock settlement on Earth as a way to work out the logistics of such a project on the Moon.
"The Moon's surface is covered in rock formations similar to basalt," says Vyacheslav Bobin, head of Russia's Center for the Study of Natural Substances. "To test future landings, the Americans chose basalt plateaus in the desert (such as those found in Jordan), and our experts selected a similar terrain just below Tashkent in Uzbekistan."
The Soviet lunar settlement was able to prove the possibility of building an interplanetary base using materials that would be found in the immediate vicinity of the colonizers. "Our base was planned as an underground settlement, a 'sublunar' shelter, using natural relief formations, for example, at the bottom of a volcano crater," Bobin explains.
At the same time, the scientific community was busy calculating the actual feasibility of such a project. Unfortunately, collecting (and bringing back to Earth) the smallest samples of lunar soil for scientific purposes proved to be very difficult and cost inefficient. In the end, the conclusion was that Earthlings weren't prepared to colonize the Moon just yet.
Artist's impression of a lunar base — Source: NASA
"But back then the talks were only of building a base," Bobin says. "Now we can talk about extracting natural resources. Our country has extensive experience in processing natural resources on Earth, and the Moon has a lot to offer."
For example, Regolith, the substance covering most of the Moon's surface, contains enormous amounts of Helium-3, an isotope that is crucial to thermonuclear energy. The U.S. already possesses the technology required to extract it. "In the end," Bobin adds, "colonizing the Moon will pay off tenfold."
But the creation of a settlement is still an open question. For now, the most realistic scenario revolves around applying the 3D printing technology to build the lunar home.
"This idea was originally proposed by the European Space Agency," Bobin says. "The walls of a lunar settlement built from regolith mixed with periclase (MgO) are capable of withstanding extreme temperature fluctuations and provide protection against meteors. He adds that 3D printers "are already capable of constructing a lunar settlement of approximately 600 cubic meters in volume — all in just seven to 10 days."
But here's the catch: how to get "ink" for a printer like that. For the printing of building blocks, lunar regolith must be processed into a fine powder, and existing mills can't function properly without the presence of gravitational pull.
Bobin says Russia is uniquely positioned to solve the gravitational challenge, with its patented "gyroscopic mill," which can operate under zero-gravity conditions. "Instead of using gravity to crush soil samples, the mill uses gyroscopic force, which is not dependent on gravity." he explains. "If we adopt these technologies, then we can truly be ahead of the world by a decade."
Vladimir Dolgopolov, an engineer from Russia's Scientific and Production Establishment (NPO), says neither the Russian space agency Roscosmos nor NASA have spent much time focusing on the Moon. But satellite observations over the last decade indicate that there may be water in the Moon's polar regions, and thus oxygen for breathing. "Oxygen and hydrogen are also the most effective rocket fuel, which means that we can build a habitable base."
Artist's impression of a colony on the dark side of the Moon — Photo: Jim Champion
After the Soviet lunar project, Dolgopolov worked on the international project "Vega," which specialized in the exploration of Venus and Halley's Comet. But now Dolgopolov's gaze is shifted back to the Moon. How will this program be distinguished from the previous ones? Until now, all lunar rovers — both Russian and American — landed on the equatorial region of the Moon, and never found signs of water, given temperatures there top 130 °C. The polar Moon is drastically different: Daytime temperatures don't exceed 20 °C, while it drops to -180 at night. Scientists hypothesize that in the so-called "shadow traps" of lunar craters, there may be entire sheets of ice.
A plan of action
Russia's new lunar program envisions four launches. The first will be Luna-Glob (or Luna-25), which will land in the Boguslawsky crater near the southern pole. "The objective of this rover is to practice landing, to remind us of how it's done," Dolgopolov says. "We haven't landed there in over 40 years." The initial launch had been planned for 2014 but was postponed to early 2019.
Among the scientific equipment aboard the Luna-Glob are a neutron detector, a small arm and a laser analyzer. The arm serves to grab hold of regolith samples, place it into a container, and then the laser determines the sample's composition. Next to the completed Luna-Glob at the NPO stands a prototype for Luna-26, whose mission will be to probe and film the lunar surface in search for an ideal landing location for "Luna-27."
Indeed, it is Luna-27 that the Russians consider the "real deal." Its journey has a crucial purpose: to investigate the habitability of the Moon through environmental and atmospheric observations, much like what ExoMars will attempt on the surface of the red planet. The next step will be to deliver polar soil back to Earth. Despite the state-of-the-art technology, the capabilities of laboratories on Earth exceed those of the Luna-27 mission. The rovers will be launched bi-annually, and Luna-28 will be tasked with continuing its predecessor's mission: discovering, collecting and bringing it all back.