Right now, a spacecraft is gathering data that could reveal one of the most important resources for lunar development.
That spacecraft is SELENE (Kaguya), and the data comes from its ground-penetrating radar (GPR). When it has collected 12 months of data, the GPR team believes it will be able to identify lavatube cave voids 300m across or larger.
Since there are surface indications of far larger caves, we believe they will be confirmed in coming years. Cave environments should be far less hostile than the lunar surface for both humans and their equipment.
Oregon L5 researchers selected these caves as focal points of Moon and Mars development.
Large caves provide "pre-built" natural shelter from radiation, temperature changes, and abrasive dust. Inflatable and other modules, roads, utilities, etc., can be hung from the cave ceiling or anchored to cave walls and floor. When properly utilized, caves make lunar development far cheaper and yet much safer than surface bases.
In late 2006 Oregon L5 commenced a project in the virtual world Second Life (SL) to demonstrate the advantages of these structures, first in NASA CoLab, and next at National Space Society's own nearby region (also known as a "sim" or an "island"). The Oregon L5 / NSS development demonstration consists of three phases.
Phase 1 begins by setting up small outposts for an evaluation crew of three to six people. They will confirm site suitability, and, with the help of teleoperated robots, begin construction of the main Phase 1 Base, including larger 6.5m diameter inflatable modules. Five modules will be set up by the outpost crew and the initial members of the 20-person crew who will live and work in them.
Crews install at least three lunar industrial plants to utilize local, in situ resources: A direct-electrolysis liquid oxygen (LOX) plant, a carbonyl metals plant, and a furnace and spinning facility to make high-strength glass fiber from lunar regolith. These facilities: power, housing, and industries, are now installed on top of and inside a large mountain our team built on three parcels NASA CoLab "deeded" to Oregon L5 Society. Lavatube caverns shelter the habitats. The LOX will reduce transportation and supply costs because ships will not have to lift their return oxidizer. Fiber and metal fabricators provide building and other construction materials.
Teleoperated "Regolith Harvesters" (below) will gather regolith for these plants. Robots and teleoperated devices provide many other operational functions, supporting crew on the spot, and multiplying their productivity.
Materials from the factories will be used by the Phase 1 crew to begin building Phase 2 Settlement modules. Housing and commercial modules formed by a large winding machine will use sintered regolith, glass fiber and ferrous metals with only a minimum of resources lifted from Earth.
(graphic of winding machine with housing and commercial modules in the foreground)
As settlers get established in Phase 2 modules, they start up entrepreneurial support activities, science research, tourism, etc. They will also take up an even larger task: preparing a full town!
NSS Region has more than shallow, 40m lavatubes for Phase 2 Settlement: It also has deep, Phase 3 lavatubes as large as 100m X 150m cross-section. A significant Phase 2 project is sealing the Phase 3 lavatube.
This town-sized community does not need separate pressurized modules: the basalt lavatube itself holds the pressure of a pleasant atmosphere. Such large lavatubes, as shown above, have open air, running water, clouds and rain, and "outdoor" plantings including trees, grasses, and flowers.
These three, staged environments have numerous opportunities of increasing complexity and capability for entrepreneurs. Opportunities also arise between these bases, other bases, and other nodes of a network of resource and information exchange in the solar system. There will be "rooms to let", opportunities to run businesses and services, politics and government, transportation, etc. Even an economy, thanks to the presence of "Linden dollars" in Second Life. We hope operation of the Second Life bases will influence the development of real life bases, and help anticipate the problems and opportunities that may arise. We anticipate a number of specific role-playing exercises as well.
Water for a Phase 3 Community might come from the Moon's own ice deposits, but may also come from harvesting a Near-Earth-Object carbonaceous chondrite.
Certainly Carbon, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen will be needed in large quantities to complete the CHON quartet (Carbon-Hydrogen-Oxygen-Nitrogen) of elements that support living organisms, including humans. These will first arrive with freeze-dried food and industrial chemicals in Phase 1 and Phase 2. When Phase 2 is up and running fully, fresh grown foods will be highly valued as enrichment of the settler's experience, and a strong morale booster and incentive for productivity. It will be cost-effective to mine comets and outer moons of the solar system to provide these elements essential to life support.
Even while NSS Sim is "under construction", our management team looks to the virtually complete Phase 1 base at NASA CoLab to conduct role-playing exercises. We will test various designs and operational activities to generate empirical data about mechanical, procedural and human resource problems and their possible solutions. Exercises will at first be short and specific to one function, such as landing a cargo ship or installing a powerplant. Then, as experience grows and more participants join in, we will expand through Phase 1 and Phase 2 with multiple functions and co-dependencies, with many results. Because of the multiplicity and complexity of conditions, any settlement or community will produce results specific to the exercise and conditions. As we build up a library of problems and outcomes, however, these simulations may reveal general predictors for results at least into the near future, to guide upcoming actual communities on the Moon, and elsewhere.
Watch this space....