Russia Aims To Build A Base On The Moon — With 3D Printers

Many are focused on the race to Mars, but Russia sees a unique opportunity to make an inhabitable base on the Moon. The possibility of lunar life and patented technologies could change the calculus.

Artist's impression of a Russian Luna-Glob module on the surface of the Moon
Artist's impression of a Russian Luna-Glob module on the surface of the Moon
Nikita Aronov and Elena Kudryavtseva

MOSCOW â€" 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 â€" 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.

Too soon

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 â€" 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 â€" 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."

International cooperation

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."

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 â€" both Russian and American â€" 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.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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