Welcome to "Hey, Science," our disgustingly scientific weekly feature in which we will have your most provocative scientific questions answered by real live scientists (or related experts). No question is too smart for us to tackle, theoretically speaking. This week, experts address a Gawker reader's plea: When can we go live on the moon, already?
THE QUESTION: World-weary Gawker reader Chris asks, "When can we start building space colonies at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points? I am eager to leave my backward-thinking neighbors behind in the same manner that my Huguenot ancestors ditched their fellow Frenchmen. Is there someone I can throw my disposable income at to help make this happen?" How about it, space experts: where are our moon bases?
Bill McKinnon, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Washington University:
We could start any time, but it would be very expensive (one trillion $). There is no particular reason to build a colony, by which I take you mean something like the Plymouth or Jamestown colonies. So this won't happen for a long time. What is more likely in the decades ahead is a research station or moonbase, like several nations today maintain in Antarctica. Nobody claims to have "colonized" Antarctica.
For a moonbase, [we do have the technology right now]. For a self-sustaining colonies (food, air, water), no. Biosphere 2 failed. We need greater research effort along those lines. Within 10 to 20 years I believe interested sovereigns or science organizations (or extremely wealthy individuals) will be able to purchase transportation to and from the lunar surface. As for buying living space, that is too far out to even speculate upon.
David Stevenson, Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Planetary Science, Caltech:
I'll answer but be warned: I am not enthusiastic about people in space; I think it is an indulgence (or a romantic endeavor) rather than driven by practical considerations.
"Space colonies could in principle be built with current technology at Largrange points or on the moon, though there are long term health hazards from high energy radiation. The real question here is: Why would you do it? It's not clear what benefit could be derived (relative to the benefit here on Earth of expending the same very large amount of resources at home). Perhaps it will become a billionaires playground before it becomes actually useful."
Joe Giacalone, professor and assistant head of the Department of Planetary Sciences, University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory:
1. There are no "Earth-Moon Lagrange points" (well, there might be, but only if you neglect the Sun, which doesn't make sense). There are 5 Lagrange points associated with the Sun-Earth system These are in space — one is between the Earth and Sun, two others are on the same line as the Earth and Sun with one on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, and the other behind Earth. Two others are off to the sides. It would make little sense to place a human colony at one of these points because they are in space.
2. As for a moon colony: On the one hand, humans are explorers; so, in the future I do predict there will a human outpost on the Moon. But, it is extremely difficult (dust on the Moon is a major problem) and will be extremely expensive. So, we must weigh our thirst for exploration with the practical issue of how much it would cost. Personally, I don't think it is presently worth the cost. I would be surprised if I were to see a human base on the moon during my lifetime (I'm 50 now). On the other hand, are there practical reasons to place a base on the moon? I am certainly not the best person to answer this. The Moon is basically made of the same stuff Earth is — except for a notable lack of volatile elements, like water. So, I do not see any obvious resources that the Moon has that we lack (but, I could be mistaken, I just don't know for sure). The base might serve as a "launching point" for exploring the solar system (with robots) easier, but, again, I am not certain of this.
From a prominent professor of planetary sciences who asked not to be named in order to dissuade follow up queries from moon-crazed people like you:
"We have the technology to do this today. However there is not currently the scientific, political, or economic motivation to undertake such an expensive endeavor at this time. The cost still exceeds what any company or individual could afford to invest to create the infrastructure required to offer Lunar Apartments for sale."
THE VERDICT: While it would be possible, in theory, to construct some sort of moon bases now, the astronomically (heh) high cost makes it highly unlikely that it will happen any time soon. There, are, however, companies that hope to be able to send rich people to the moon within the decade. Now we just have to figure out how to keep them there.
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Image from Wikipedia, sourced from NASA.