Lunar water paves the way for new space base

Space oasis: 15,000 square miles of water have been discovered on the Earth’s moon. © ESA

Should anyone own the moon? After the discovery of water on the moon’s surface, the USA hopes to build a new lunar base, but some think that its resources should belong to all humanity.

Four and a half billion years ago, somewhere not far from a young, medium-sized yellow star, two small planets collided. The impact vaporised the upper crust of one planet and smashed the other into smithereens.

The debris from this collision was dragged into orbit and mercilessly pulverised into a smooth sphere: the moon. Back on Earth, meanwhile, something unusual was happening. The hot rocks thrown up by the collision created an atmosphere mostly of carbon dioxide and water vapour. And from this water, oceans began to form.

Millions of years later, tiny organisms began to make their way around these vast seas. Although the moon had been instrumental in life’s formation, it would be almost four billion years before any animal would look up from the Earth and see its white light shining in the sky.

Now, new evidence suggests that the moon has its own reserves of water, not the vast oceans that we find on Earth – but tiny molecules trapped in lunar dust. Nasa hopes to use these reserves to construct a base on the moon.

The lunar water could be put to all sorts of uses: its component elements – oxygen and hydrogen – can be used as fuel in liquid form. It could also be used to supply vital oxygen to astronauts.

Because the atmosphere of the moon is much thinner than that of Earth, it is easier to launch rockets there. Nasa could therefore use a lunar base to send missions deep into space. In short, water on the moon could be the key to landing an astronaut on Mars.

However, the discovery of water on the moon has also sparked new conflict over the exploitation of its resources.

On 14 October, eight nations, including the USA, UK and Japan, signed the Artemis Accords, a new treaty designed to regulate safety, co-operation, the operation of space hardware, sustainable use of resources and the disposal of space debris in future missions.

The accords are designed to support Nasa’s Artemis programme, which aims to land astronauts on the moon by 2024. Among them will be the first woman ever to set foot on the lunar surface. It also hopes to establish a lunar base, with a permanent crew, by 2030.

Some countries have refused to sign the accords, accusing the USA of trying to seize lunar resources for itself. The accords explicitly state that mining on the moon is permissible under international law. This follows the Space Act of 2015, which enshrined the right to use and trade space resources in US domestic law.

The head of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, claims that the accords are “too US-centric” and should be based on “principles of international co-operation”. China has also avoided involvement in the programme.

But it is not just the USA’s enemies and rivals that have refused to sign the Artemis Accords. France, Germany and India are absent from the signatories, suggesting that these countries, with their own well-developed space programmes, are unwilling to ratify a treaty that risks handing the USA a headstart in lunar exploitation.

So, should anyone own the moon?

Lune-y tunes

Yes, say some. They claim that competition for ownership of the moon might force countries to innovate new space travel technologies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Space Race between the USA and the USSR drove each country to invest in their space programmes. The result was that within just 12 years, humanity went from sending its first satellite into space, to putting a man on the moon.

No, say others. They point to the example of Antarctica: initially, various countries laid claim to Antarctica, and almost went to war over it. However, the 1961 Antarctic Treaty cancelled all of these claims, and now scientists of all nations collaborate on Antarctic research. International co-operation in moon exploration is necessary to avoid conflict between countries on Earth.

You Decide

  1. Is it better for humanity if countries co-operate, or can there be advantages to competition?
  2. Who “owns” the resources on the moon? Should they belong to all of humanity by right? Or do they belong to whoever finds and extracts them first?

Activities

  1. What should a base on the moon look like? Draw a sketch of the moon station you would like to see by 2030.
  2. Write a letter to the head of your country’s space agency making the case either for the Artemis Accords, or for more international co-operation.

Some People Say...

“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.”

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), Russian rocket scientist.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that human beings have always dreamed of travelling to the moon. In 1657, the French writer Cyrano de Bergerac wrote a story about flying to the moon using bottles of dew. When he arrives, he discovers that the moon hosts the Garden of Eden. It was taken for granted then that the moon could be inhabited, because it was thought that the moon had large oceans, of which the Sea of Tranquillity was the largest. We now know that these “seas” are huge plains of basalt rock.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over how water arrived on Earth and the moon. Water is very easily lost into space: it breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen rises out of the atmosphere. It is estimated that the Earth has lost at least the equivalent of one ocean of water within the first two billion years of its history. Some think that its water reserves were formed from hydrogen within the planet, while others think that it arrived on asteroids and comets that collided with the Earth.

Word Watch

Yellow star
The colour of a star depends on how hot it is. The very hottest stars, at 30,000 degrees celsius or above, are blue, while the coolest, at less than 3,300 degrees, are red. Our sun, at 6,000 degrees, is on the cooler side.
Carbon dioxide
A greenhouse gas found in many planetary atmospheres. It makes up 96.5% of the atmosphere of Venus, our nearest neighbour. While it does form naturally, human activity has also artificially increased the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.
Lunar dust
A fine dust on the surface of the moon, formed by the debris from asteroid collisions. Because it is quite abrasive, Nasa is concerned that it could damage equipment and harm astronauts who spend prolonged periods on the moon.
Nasa
The space agency of the USA. Its full name is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Established in 1958, it was responsible for putting the first man on the moon in 1969.
Oxygen
An element that is vital for life on Earth. It makes up 21% of our atmosphere. Although it is the third-most-common element in the universe, it is usually found bonded to other elements; Earth is rare in having such an abundance of pure oxygen.
Atmosphere
The layer of gases surrounding a planet or moon, held in place by that planet’s gravity. Small planets and moons have weak gravitational fields, and therefore only a very thin atmosphere.
Space Race
An informal competition between the USA and the Soviet Union. Each power tried to prove its technological sophistication by pushing the frontiers of space exploration. The Soviet Union put the first satellite, the first dog, the first man, and the first woman in space, but the USA was the first to reach the moon.
Antarctica
The Earth’s southernmost and fifth-largest continent. Thanks to its low temperatures and long periods without sunlight, its landmass is permanently frozen.

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