Can we colonise the Moon?
Image: grapegeek/iStockphoto

This piece first appeared in the Australian science magazine COSMOS.

Humans reached the Moon for the first time in July 1969. It was the pinnacle of a technological arms race during the Cold War and it captured the imagination of the world.

Only a year later, the first remotely controlled robot, called Lunokhod 1, travelled more than 10km using solar energy, and was the original precursor of modern solar-powered cars. These were incredible feats of engineering, and an exciting time in our history because it marked a new era of exploration for humans.

The Moon might once again be on the horizon as we consider the possibility of building a manned outpost that could harbour a new generation of human pioneers. This is, of course, some way off, with many challenges in the interim, but it's an exciting prospect nonetheless - and one that Australia, as a nation, should start preparing for now.

Looking back at history, exploration has always been a driver of innovation and economic growth, and the future of lunar exploration will be no different. The companies investing in the Google Lunar-X Prize are well aware of the potential pay-off. The competition boasts a US$30-million pot for the first three privately funded teams to successfully land and deploy a robot on the Moon, but in reality, this is only a fraction of the real prize. One of the biggest drivers of early lunar exploration is undoubtedly mining.

Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, a team 'shooting' for the prize-money, says the aim is to start lunar mining in 2016 to establish a secure source of 'rare Earth minerals' - the chemical properties of which are critically important for manufacturing high-tech products such as iPhones, electric and hybrid cars. The vast bulk of these minerals on Earth currently comes from China, which has recently installed export bans, so an unclaimed source of rare Earth minerals presents a particularly attractive opportunity. Another possible 'money-maker' that is abundant on the Moon is Helium-3 (He-3), which could, in theory, support cold fusion - a clean energy source that could one day replace coal and uranium.

So will Australia participate in this drive for new energy, and use its mining expertise to position itself as a technological leader in developing lunar mining tools and techniques? Or will it sit idly by, and continue to rely on existing energy sources?

The drivers for lunar exploration and a future Moon base where humans could reside for short or extended periods are plentiful. Apart from being a radical tourist destination, it would offer incredible opportunities for scientific advancement and cooperation, and serve as a base for future space exploration. It would provide scientists with a hub to observe, experiment, measure and explore a drastically different environment - and its effect on the physiology of organisms plus well-established Earth-based building processes.

For large multinational companies it offers an opportunity to set-up shop and to promote their status through unique advertising campaigns, and manufacturers of delicate products would find the high vacuum and lower gravity on the Moon helpful to their operations.

It's a grand vision, but do we have the technological know-how to make it happen?

From an engineering perspective, the lunar environment poses an array of scientific and technological challenges. Any construction on the Moon would require the use of resources extracted and processed on location, as the cost of transport from Earth would be prohibitive - barring the unforeseen development of a practical space elevator system.

We have never done anything other then hand-drilling into the lunar regolith (the technical name for soil) with a precursor to the cordless drill. All the graphics and data suggest Earth-based mining technology will not work on the Moon because existing processes are based on heavy machinery.

Starting with a NASA contract in 1988, I investigated alternative methods to dig the densely compacted regolith without creating dust. Lunar dust will be a major risk for survival if we don't engineer solutions to minimise this hazard.

The Apollo astronauts reported that walking and driving kicks up dust to shoulder-height, and the solar energy and lower gravity is enough to keep the particles elevated for at least one lunar day (equivalent to 17 Earth days). These tiny, very coarse particles are able to wear through space suits, penetrate filters and destroy seals and airlocks. It's really no laughing matter, and it's one of the most important messages I tell my students: NO DUST.

Another challenge is the lack of design standards and building codes. Anything that is built here in Australia or any other advanced nation has to adhere to standards and codes. These, in turn, have been established over hundreds of years based on extensive research, and modified only after major collapses. We can't afford disasters on the Moon to establish safe building codes. So how can we do this when we have never built there?

In my opinion, we need to begin right now! To be economically feasible, we need to develop automated lunar mining techniques that don't require the presence of humans. And as we can't recreate the Moon environment here on Earth, much of this testing will need to take place in space. It would be a great benefit to attach small but critical experiments to every lander mission that is planned. And if these tests were to be coordinated by a world body, like the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in Geneva, much could be learned through global cooperation.

It is my hope that the Australian mining industry takes on the leadership to drive the development of lightweight mining technology to be ready to be launched in 2016. At my laboratory at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, I've demonstrated an innovative new prototype for practical lunar mining that can get around the problem of accessing extremely dense regolith, which is incredibly difficult to cut. Using a small pipe connected to a vacuum pump one is able to 'drill' small holes or shafts that don't collapse.

We've experimented with a closed system where a gas is contained inside pipes pushing the lunar soil pneumatically from the mining nozzle to the cyclones at the other end, separating the gas from the regolith entering the processing plant. The gas is then returned to the miner with the help of a small blower.

It's still in its infancy, but we're working on refining this technology. And beyond this, it raises the issue of two other interesting challenges: how do you source power on the Moon when you have such extended periods of darkness, and how do you turn the raw regolith into building materials?

Two of my Honours students have worked on waterless lunar concrete using polymers and the storage and recycling of thermal energy in sintered regolith - soil that has been cooked into dense blocks. Their papers have been accepted at the Earth and Space 2012 conference in April, hosted by the American Society for Civil Engineers - the theme of which is engineering for extreme environments.

While it may not be here yet, and while some people may continue to grapple with the relevance of returning to the Moon, I strongly believe that we will soon see a 'Moon Rush' opening up new opportunities that will drive the world economy for decades. The matter of importance is, who will reap the side-benefits that arise from the development of these new ideas?

It's not the end product that is important for a country like Australia, but rather it's the hard trail that leads to the final destination. Australia and its main economic leaders need to decide if they want to be world leaders in the field of lunar mining or watch as other countries capitalise on these opportunities. I can't wait until the first Google-X Prize teams land and drive their small robots across the lunar surface, sending us live video links from the Moon - the first such footage in 40 years.

Leonhard Bernold is an associate professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Editor's Note: Original opinion piece can be found here.