Ep. 687: Prepping for the Moon

We’re going back to the Moon. In the next few years humans will set foot on the Moon again, ideally this time to stay. But this will be different than the Apollo era, going to the scientifically fascinating, and difficult southern pole of the Moon. What needs to be done to prepare the way back to the Moon?


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:49] Astronomy Cast. Episode 687 prepping for the moon. Welcome to Astronomy Cast for weekly facts based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:02:12] I am doing well, and I have to say, I am so pleased that your pursuit of Chinese over the past five some odd years is seriously going to pay off today, because you understand, old well, you don’t understand all the Chinese language stuff, but you’ve been tracking the Chinese space industry a whole lot closer than I have. Yeah, hand in hand with learning the language. And that is going to be awesome because I can sit back and learn today. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:38] Yeah. How the. All right, let’s go, let’s go. So we’re going back to the moon. In the next few years, humans will set foot on the moon again, ideally this time to stay. But this will be different than the Apollo era. Going to the scientifically fascinating and difficult southern pole of the moon. What needs to be done to prepare the way back to the moon? So what is the plan? I mean, to return to the moon. If if all goes well, what’s going to happen? 

Pamela Gay [00:03:09] If all goes well, there is going to be a space station, the NASA gateway that is positioned between here and the moon, that essentially acts like the spaceship version of a train station, allowing people to fly safely from Earth to the gateway on Starship on Orion. All of the plans they show show Orion. And then once they’re, get rested up and then ferry back and forth from the moon. The next step is there are plans that are still a little bit fuzzier. Not as many contracts have been made to create a habitat on the moon where folks will be able to live, rove, explore and stay in contact with Earth thanks to a network of satellites. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:09] Right. And I guess what does the South pole of the moon. What makes this more logistically challenging than going to the places they landed during the Apollo missions? 

Pamela Gay [00:04:23] So there’s basically three big problems. I’m going to start with the least intuitive, and that is the orbital plane. When you look at the moon, it is not that tilted relative to the Earth. It’s tilted about a degree and a half relative to the, Earth’s orbital plane. And getting from here to there, it’s super easy to put yourself in an orbit that has plus or -20 degrees, inclination. But the South Pole is not plus or -20 degrees. So you have to get yourself there and also rotate your orbit so that you’re going over the poles and then figure out how to land in this extremely dynamic terrain where there are craters, miles deep and areas of permanent shadow and permanent sunlight, which each require their own environmental dealings. And it’s just a challenge to get yourself into the right orbit and then figure out how to land there. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:35] And I mean, when you go into polar orbit, like the polar orbit has a really big advantage, which is that it lets you reach every single part of the planet if you just have to wait for it to rotate underneath you. And so you can launch into polar orbit here on Earth from almost anywhere, you just head for the pole and and then now you’re going, you know, you’re passing across the North Pole, then you’re passing across the South Pole. You know, there may be some minor changes to your orbit. You’re going to have to pull off, depending on how accurate you want it to be. But to go to the moon, right. You’ve got to go on this orbit that follows the Earth’s equator first to get out to the moon, and then you’ve got to switch to a polar orbit at the moon. And that is tricky. 

Pamela Gay [00:06:22] It’s not just tricky, it’s energy intensive. And we do everything we can to, reduce the amount of fuel that is needed. And there are low fuel ways to get there if you go into these massive orbits. But if you’re carrying humans, that then is going to require more water, more air, more consumables. And so now you need more fuel because you’re carrying more stuff. And so pick how you want this to be expensive. No matter what you do. It’s going to be an expensive orbit to get into. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:01] Yeah. All right. So that’s the first problem. The orbit. What’s next. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:05] So once you are there you you have to figure out okay. So the permanently shadowed areas are where there is most likely water. The permanently sunny areas are where you have constant communications with Earth, where you have solar energy from here to forever. And you need to figure out where you’re going to put yourself balanced between these two useful parts of the environment and not have a. Difficult time getting between the two. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:45] Right. And so like like when you go during the Apollo era, they would just land and be on the moon for a few hours or a few days during the lunar day. So they had sunlight the entire time. They had consistent warmth, temperature. They knew their planning for they could see Earth communicate with Earth. But if you’re going to be on the moon for any period of time, you’ve got to go through a lunar day and a lunar night, both of which are 14 days long. So it’s tricky to handle that length of a time. You’ve got to be able to have a heating system that can keep you powered up during the long lunar night. And you need to have a cooling system that can keep you alive during the long lunar day. Both are. 

Pamela Gay [00:08:24] Tricky. And and then it’s just the whole getting all the resources you need and not getting dust inside your spacecraft. And this is one of the things that I think I’ve taken the greatest personal amusement in watching them try and figure out, because here on Earth are dust is a combination of things that are fairly soft and fluffy to begin with, like flakes of skin and things that have been buffeted by air, wind, water. And these processes soften the edges. Dust on the moon is basically little, tiny, itty bitty shards of glass, and that is less pleasant. So they need to figure out how to keep the dust on the outside and be able to get inside and outside to do regular maintenance to go hopefully mine water. And and so they need to solve a double problem, which is how do you get in and out of your habitat where you’re going to live. And then how do you travel around the moon potentially overnight and not subject yourself to dust? And so they’re actually considering some of these fabulous looking rovers where your space suits attach to the outside and you slide into them and they just look ridiculous. Like that’s really the only thing I can say. 

Fraser Cain [00:09:55] And I think the other issue is the the lack of communication. So if you’re at the far side of the moon near the South Pole, then you won’t have a direct line of sight back to Earth. And so all communications will have to go through some relay station at the moon to then get your communications back to Earth, which just makes things a more, more challenging again. 

Pamela Gay [00:10:18] But it’s a solvable problem. We solved it for our own planet, and Lockheed has been contracted by NASA to solve it for the moon. And it just means more satellites, smaller ones, in this case, orbiting our smaller neighbor. 

Fraser Cain [00:10:33] Yeah, and the Chinese have done this. They had a lunar relay, during one of their previous missions, and they were able to send data back and forth from Earth from the lander, even though it was on the far side of the moon, there was no direct line of sight. So all right, we’re going to talk about how some of these problems are going to be addressed in a second, but it is time for another break. 

Pamela Gay [00:10:56] This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Each month, BetterHelp asks us about different aspects of how therapy can help and has helped us. It feels a bit like. And this month I get to tell our audience this new thing about me. It’s a lot, but BetterHelp matters. This week’s writing prompt hit me in the oh, yeah, okay, I can do this. This week’s prompt read. Sometimes in life, we’re faced with tough choices, and the path forward isn’t always clear. Whether you’re dealing with decisions about career, relationships or anything else, therapy can help you stay connected to what you really want while you navigate life. This prompt was followed in read with the instructions. Host. Elaborate on this. So yeah, as we’ve talked about in our show before, being a woman in science is just not easy. And from about 2015 to 2021, I went through a multi-tiered form of professional hell at the same time that, mysteriously, my car’s brake lines got broken twice and someone loosened the lug nuts on my car. When the tire came off on the highway, my grad student who’d borrowed the car was able to get through what could have been a deadly accident without a scratch. But I decided I needed to get rid of my beloved Jeep of 20 years and consider a new career. It was a lot, and I considered saying goodbye to astronomy to. Journalism and everything I ever wanted to do with my life. But the thing is, the two things in my life that were always my safe place were astronomy and writing. And I needed someone to say, yeah, it sucks. It absolutely sucks. But will you really be happier with your life if you walk away? Or is that just easier? And here I am. It’s 2023. I’m still in astronomy, I’m still writing, and I’m here because someone at BetterHelp was able to help me understand doing what is easy with your life and doing what you want to do with your life aren’t the same thing. And the police told me to get security cameras and a dog. That means business. And I got those two. So sometimes you do need more than one answer. If you realize you need someone to help you deal with life and its changing decisions, consider getting help from BetterHelp. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Let therapy be your Mac with BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/astronomy Today to get 10% off your first month. That’s BetterHelp help.com/astronomy. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:10] And we’re back. So based on this, and we know the humans are going to be going and going to try and work on the moon and do more science and maybe last longer. What what plans are in the works now? What missions are going to fly to start to prepare the ground for their arrival? 

Pamela Gay [00:14:34] So the ones that I’ve seen most in the process of actually getting completed are actually the ones that are going to prepare the space. So we have Northrop Grumman and, Max are working together on the Lunar Gateway, where Max is working on the AI engine and electricity system. We have Northrop Grumman working on the crew cabins, and this is the start of what will be the next large, hopefully permanently occupied space station that will come after the International Space Station. I we only know there’s so many years we can get out of that low Earth orbit giant system, and it’s days are numbered. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:20] Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:21] The next one we build is going to be a whole lot further out. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:24] Which would be crazy like to think that there will be people probably. I mean, it won’t be permanently inhabited in the beginning, but there will be times when you look up at the moon and you like, I know there is a space station somewhere in that vicinity that has people on board. They’re still there. You know, we’re for weeks, maybe, months. It’ll be great. Okay, so this is the Lunar Gateway. Now, the first missions aren’t going to use the Lunar gateway. They’re going to do a direct route. They’re going to direct. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:51] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:52] So. So what else is being prepared to to help with this this exploration? 

Pamela Gay [00:15:59] And this is where we have a special edition of the Starship program by space X, where they are building a refueling ball on orbit. It’s the front part, not the booster part, of their Starship mission. And it’s going to act like a ferryboat carrying people back and forth. In this case, it will be docking. Initially, they’re saying with an Orion capsule. So the idea is the astronauts board and Orion, launch on whatever is launching the Orion at that point in time. Get carried out to cislunar space, meet up with the Starship, dock the two vehicles together. Move to the starship, fly the starship to the moon where it is capable of landing. They do all the things they’re going to do, and then the entire thing flies back up and is normally reusable the same way any other ferryboat is reusable. Once you refuel it and check the engines to do maintenance. 

Fraser Cain [00:17:05] This is bonkers. Like, yeah. Have you ever like being on a cruise ship and you’re in a port where they don’t have a big pour, they can’t handle full cruise ship, so they put you on Tinder and you get in the tender and you go out to the dock and you dock. It’s that. But imagine you cross the ocean in the tender, and then it was time to dock at the port. You get into the cruise ship and then dock at the dock and then back out to tender. And then you continue on with your voyage. The scale of Starship is just so big. 

Pamela Gay [00:17:35] And and this is where a lot of folks are really hoping that they sort out just what happened with with Starship. I saw some work over the weekend. Phil Metzger was talking about how the environmental samples they’re looking at appear to be more sand than cement. So it’s looking like they blasted one part of the dunes to another part of the dunes, which is not environmentally good, but it’s a whole lot less worse than blasting cement to kingdom come, right? Right. So hopefully all of that will get sorted quickly, because in an ideal world, you launch in a giant starship, take new fuel, take new supplies, reef, redo Lunar Gateway, however it’s needed. Transfer on to the other Starship that is designed to literally just go back and forth from the moon. And it’s it’s a really cool future to imagine. But right now it’s it’s just sort of like taking an elevator to a mobile skyscraper. And yeah, it’s kind of silly. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:42] And I mean, the way this is supposed to work now is that starship, you know, Space-x has won the contract for the human landing system on the moon, and they have to do a test flight. They have to prove that they can safely fly down to the surface of the moon and then back up and ideally in time for the 2026 Artemis three mission. That’s only three years away, and we still haven’t seen the first launch of. Starship yet. They’re going to be like. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:13] Did it just didn’t. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:14] Succeed? Yeah, yeah. We haven’t seen the first successful launch of Starship, not to mention the first successful orbit refueling. Not to mention the first lunar version of Starship flying, not to mention a successful test down to the surface of the moon in preparation for. Because the Artemis two and three missions are, from what I can tell on time. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:36] So let’s. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:38] Be. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:38] Ready. Meant that the space is hard. Yeah, timelines are ridiculous. Yeah, and we don’t actually know when any of this is going to happen. We say currently that the next couple of Artemis missions with SLS look like they’re on time. But do we really know? 

Fraser Cain [00:19:56] Yeah. And I mean, as with the, I guess with the commercial crew system that gets astronauts up to the International Space Station, they have the Crew Dragon, and theoretically they have the CST Starliner, the Boeing CST 100 Starliner. So we’re still waiting for that first human test of the Starliner to actually carry people. NASA has done the same thing where they’re not putting all of their eggs in the space basket. So they’ve contracted with Blue Origin to provide a lander for the 2029 Artemis mission. So you’ve got this balance. So SpaceX is going to get a bunch of landings. And then theoretically Blue Origin is going to get a couple of landings. And hopefully competition will be injected into this system so that you’re going to have both attempting to, you know, compete with each other and not just have a monopoly on launch, on landing services at the moon, but it’s a it’s a big risk for NASA to put the actual landing system into the hands of a private company and pay them for the services, as opposed to developing and developing it in-house, sort of in the way they did with with the Space Launch System. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:08] So it’s I think it’s important to point out, though, that NASA has always gotten its, bits and pieces from for profit companies. Yes. Lockheed Martin Marietta I feel like they’re all one company online. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:27] Yeah. Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:28] Yeah, yeah. And so what we’re really seeing is it’s finally been acknowledged that all these contracts that allow overruns and, oh, you didn’t do it. Okay, so we’re going to have to pay you another 40%. We’re going to have to pay you another ten years. They’re going to take a step back and go, no, we’re going to do like American Airlines does, and you’re going to deliver us something complete. And we’re going to negotiate the price in front. So instead of I mean they’re ceding the R&D there, there has been R&D grants along the way. But ultimately they’re moving to this new way of doing things where they’re paying flat fees. And companies are going to have to absorb the cost overruns when they don’t deliver as promised. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:19] Yeah. And I think, you know, we will move on here in in a second. But, you know, this idea of just paying by the seat is interesting. And it has worked in the case of, of commercial cargo and commercial crew. We’ll see if it works with hopefully Boeing can can deliver. It’s very weird that VP’s space X 60 million seat and they pay Boeing 90 million a seat, but yeah, but it’s but they pay, you know, when they fly people across the country, they pay for airline tickets when they rightly so. And so to have commercial operators provide some of these services and in theory, as space exploration itself just matures, we will see more and more of the things that in the in the olden days you would build bespoke, you build your own flight computer, now you buy them off the shelf and and customize them. All right. So let’s talk about some of the, I guess scientific missions that are going to help us understand the the the region. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:24] Yeah, there there are so many cool missions to to try and look at. And I have to admit, there’s so many that I haven’t been able to keep well. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:36] And so I just was like counted up the number of future missions to the moon that have been funded. There’s 42. According to Wikipedia. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:45] 42 universe and everything. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:48] That are that are funded by as well as eight human missions to the moon so far that are funded. So it is going to be busy. So there’s a couple of missions that I think are really interesting. One was the capstone mission, and this was launched by NASA, and its purpose was to essentially fly the the same orbit as the Lunar Gateway. And unfortunately, it failed. So, they weren’t able to get it to, to get into its final flight. And it doesn’t mean that the orbit for the Lunar Gateway is going to be bad. I mean, you know, maybe they’ll test this again, but unfortunately, it didn’t work for that mission. But the one that’s been really interesting so far is on the Korean denarii mission. And this is a this is a spacecraft that’s been built by South Korea. But they were able to NASA put one instrument on board, which is designed to sort of be a low light camera system. And so it’s able to look into the eternally shadowed craters at the south pole of the moon and reveal the features inside them. So I bring this up, and at this point, you only had the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and now suddenly you’ve got this low light cameras, like someone taking away your stock lens on your dSLR and replacing it with like a 1.2 50 millimeter lens, going to now take some pictures in low light and it works really well. And so now you can see just like like and it’s illuminated by ambient reflected light from nearby mountaintops and earthshine, that’s its illumination. So and to kind of take this to the next level, you’ve got NASA has got the lunar flashlight mission, which is going to be flying. oh, sorry. Lunar flashlight. They already flew. Yeah, yeah. Oh, no, that failed as well, so nevermind. 

Pamela Gay [00:25:35] Yeah, yeah, let’s get that. 

Fraser Cain [00:25:37] Yeah, yeah. But then kind of coming up, you’ve got a bunch of commercial landers which you’re going to be going to the moon, so there’s one by Astrobotic, and they’re going to be delivering a bunch of, of science instruments and potentially micro rovers and various payloads to the surface of the moon. The Chinese have a whole series of missions. They’ve got the Chang’e, six, seven and eight. And so these are going to be increasingly complicated missions, which are going to be doing scientific analysis of the moon’s south pole. The one of the more interesting ones, as you get to number eight, they’re starting to build infrastructure on the surface of the moon for communication, for scientific relay, potentially for in-situ resource utilization. And this is going to be paving the way for the Chinese human exploration of the moon, which is expected to happen before 2030. So if the if NASA doesn’t get there by 2026, you know, we could very well see another space race as the Chinese get ready to land their humans on the surface of the moon at the same time that maybe NASA’s maybe not Artemis three meters, 4 or 5. So it’s going to be an interesting time. And as I said, you know, I counted up 42 missions coming. There’s a really cool rover out of NASA called Viper that’s going to be crawling around on the lunar surface. So it’s just like, the Chinese are building a new lunar relay station at the far side of the moon. The Americans and the Europeans are collaborating on an entirely new network for being able to communicate, even are coming up with a new time zone for the moon so. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:18] Far. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:19] That. Yeah. Yeah. So it’s kind of amazing. So like like, here’s where it gets crazy, right? It’s like the surface of the moon has a different speed of clock than you do at the surface of the Earth. You know, you were at the bottom of a gravity well, which is different from the people who are orbiting the Earth, which is different from the people who are at the surface of the moon, which is different from the people who are orbiting moon. Each of these are going to experience different amounts of time dilation. And you and when communications on the line and, and spacecraft are supposed to land, you have to account for all this time dilation to make this all work and then have a, a time zone that makes sense for all the parties involved. So again, this is what we’re time 42 missions. The nearest one is just a couple of months away. And it goes out to about 2030. So that’s what’s funded so far. And then another probably 30 missions that are proposed. 

Pamela Gay [00:28:17] What I’m really loving is seeing how many of these which by which I mean like three. I have their foundations in the Google Lunar XPrize. 

Fraser Cain [00:28:27] Yes. 

Pamela Gay [00:28:29] There weren’t rockets ready for the Google Lunar XPrize teams to test or fly things within the time span of the competition, but we’ve since then seen SpaceX will, who Carter are, and now we’re looking at Astra biotics are all getting missions towards the surface. And while no one has succeeded yet. Right. It is advancement one crash at a time. And it was SpaceIL and who could, have already been talking about trying again. So we have really broadened engagement with that particular XPrize. We didn’t see the same broadening of of engagement when Scaled Composites got their Badminton Verde into space twice. But this this is really exciting. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:23] I mean, I think over the next over this decade between now and 2030, we are going to see dozens and dozens of spacecraft go to the moon. They are going to be testing out all of the technology that it’s going to be used for future exploration of the moon. They’re going to be exploring the moon both into the, you know, the permanently shadowed craters, the lunar ice, to retrieve samples, bring them back to Earth. Like, this is just this is not your grandparents lunar exploration time. This is totally different. There’s probably a dozen, maybe even 20 countries involved across all of the different groups that are doing this, from South Korea to China to Russia to Israel, as you say, to Brazil, to Japan, to the US, to Canada, UK, European countries like it is just it’s a completely different time. And it is like, I know, like like I don’t think people appreciate just how much of a tidal wave of exploration is headed to the moon right now. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:30] It’s it’s a super exciting time. And I’m just in awe of how this is advanced of communications, robotics, detector technology to to explore these craters. They’re looking to build tethered robots that they drop into caves, they drop into pits. And and this is going to advance our own explorations of our own planet. And this is truly showing how advancing any one area of exploration can advance all areas of exploration. And I’m super excited to watch it happen. 

Fraser Cain [00:31:05] Yeah, I love this idea that that if you walk outside and you watch the International Space Station fly overhead, like, you know, there are people up there and that people have been there for over 20 years just permanently flying in space. There’s always been people in space for the time that many people who are listening to the show have been alive, and there will be a time when you will look up at the moon and you know that there is a station up there and there’s astronauts on the moon, and they’re working to do science, and there’s astronauts in orbit. And it will just be this time when there were always people in space. And so we’ll get to a point where where nobody alive has lived during a time when there wasn’t continuous human presence in space. And this is how it happens. This is how we become a solar system spanning civilization. 

Pamela Gay [00:31:57] So and you’re living it. The thing I’m looking forward to, and it’s going to take longer because they’re going to the South Pole, is being able to look up at the thinnest of thin crescent moons. When you can see the rest of the moon and earthshine and seeing glowing brighter than the earthshine, the settlements of humans. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:32:19] I mean, maybe. 

Pamela Gay [00:32:21] It’s coming someday. 

Fraser Cain [00:32:22] Well, thank you, Pamela. 

Pamela Gay [00:32:24] And thank you, Fraser, and thank you to all of our patrons out there who are able to get this show ad free and allow us to pay our editors to rescue us when we flub things up or cough in the middle of saying a sentence. They make us look good, and you make it possible. This week, I would like to thank, Harold Barter Hagan, Scott Cohen, Alex Cohen, Jim schooler, Kimberly Reich, Scott Weber, David gates, Georgie Ivanov, Marco rossi, Daniel Leslie, Sabra Locke, Claudia mastroianni, Matthew Hausmann, Tim Gerrish, Tim McMeekin, Justin. Proctor, Jeff. Wilson, Gregory. Singleton. The big squish, squish. Matthias. Hayden. Disaster tremor. Conception. Fiasco. Kenneth. Ryan, Paul D, Disney. Cooper. Diamandis, Dean. McDaniel, Benjamin. Mueller, Iran. Zagreb. Omar. Del Riviera, Michael. Regan, Scott. Briggs, Ninja neck, Peter J. Alex Anderson, Matt Rucker. Veronica Cura, father Prax Jim McGinn, Michelle Cullen. MH w 1961 soup. Frodo. Dumbo. Mike, Steven. Resnick, Philip. Grand and and to thank you all so very much. 

Fraser Cain [00:33:54] Thanks, everyone. And we’ll see you next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:33:56] Evil. Bye. Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

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