Fly me to the moon…again

Nathan Smith

     On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to ever set foot on a celestial object away from Earth, our moon.  This ended the space race between the US and the USSR, and made a more profound statement than most people realize: We are a part of this universe, and we will not be chained to Earth.

     It wasn’t until 1971 that the Apollo spacecraft 14 and 15 were sent into space as the next manned missions to the lunar surface.  Just one year after that, the Apollo spacecraft 16 and 17 followed, with 17 marking the final manned moon landing to date.  But, December 14, 1972 will not long be known as the last day man ever set foot on the moon.

     On October 9 of this year, we sent new probes to the moon in hope of finding frozen water under its surface.  The Lunar Crater and Observation Sensing Satellite – LCROSS – NASA’s latest robotic spacecraft, was launched on June 18 with its companion, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – LRO – aboard an Atlas V rocket.

      There seems to be some misconceptions floating around – even inside professional newspapers – about what actually happened during this mission.  On October 9, LRO went into orbit around the moon.  LCROSS crash landed inside the Cabeus crater on the lunar surface, preparing to survey the lunar structure below its impact site.  Despite the severely watered down stories that have been thrown around, these two spacecraft did not, in fact, simply crash into the surface.  The reason for the crash landing of the LCROSS probe was due to its mission classification, which scheduled it for an impact landing.

     As you read this, LCROSS and LRO are surveying the moon, inside and out, searching for signs of frozen water.

      As for whether or not LCROSS will find water on the moon, is too soon to say.  It was the Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions – predecessor spacecraft to LCROSS — that first hinted at there being frozen water on the moon, but these findings are still somewhat theoretical (if not hypothetical).  The discovery of frozen water will determine whether or not a moon base can be constructed. Whether or not water is found on our moon, this mission will still pave the way for NASA’s plans to further explore our solar system.

     The interesting thing about science fiction is that it allows its readers to journey to a fantastic place; one that most likely could not be reached by orthodox physics and thermodynamics.  You may be surprised to learn that much of the sci-fi genre is not too far out of reach.

      By 2016, the International Space Station will be retired, and most of its modules will be used in the construction of the future base on the lunar surface. This moon base will be funded and operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA).  However, before the construction of this moon base, NASA plans to send another manned mission to the lunar surface before 2020, opening up the door for future human colonization of our moon. From there, plans will begin for the first manned mission to the Mars surface.

     But it’s the moon that’s going to shine for the next few decades.  If water is in fact confirmed on the surface, and a base is constructed afterward, this will open up numerous doors for humanity.   Not only will colonization of another celestial body alleviate population density on the Earth – which may be a problem in the coming century, when our population reaches about nine-billion – it will create invaluable mining opportunities to our future generations.  The materials found on and below the lunar surface could potentially be used for, not only agriculture, but possibly for raw materials that could aid in the construction of buildings, vehicles, or even space stations to come.

      Scientists predict that by or before the year 2100, the human population will peak, and begin to decline.  The reason for this peak in growth is because of the rapidly advancing medical technologies – allowing for a much higher percentage of the elderly – and the supposedly declining resources of Earth.  The fact is there are massive pockets of our world that are still uninhabited.  There are pockets of natural resources that we can still tap into.  And, if history has taught us anything, there are many false alarms when it comes to scientific prediction and hypothesis.  But, if this prediction is indeed factual in the end, we are not doomed.  I believe that the human population will continue to grow after 2100, just not on Earth.

      Yet, when the time comes, will the moon and Mars be the final objects to be colonized by man?  You may be thinking, well, we still have Venus and Mercury.  Wrong.  Venus’s surface can reach up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and is covered with volcanic rock and geysers of noxious gas and magma. We’ll have a clearer picture of this extraterrestrial hell in 2020 when the Venus rover is sent out to survey the planet.  Mercury, being the closest terrestrial planet to the Sun, is even hotter than Venus and has virtually no chance of having its land walked by human beings.

     However, colonization may not be completely unthinkable for these worlds.  You may have heard of the term terraforming in science fiction. This is the process of shaping an uninhabitable, terrestrial world into an environment that can be populated by human life.  But have you ever heard the term paraterraforming?  Paraterraforming may be the key to populating many stellar objects in our system.  It is the construction of habitable domes and structures that are sealed off from the rest of the world, creating a safe haven for life.  The issue of inhospitable atmospheres could also be solved through paraterraforming, by placing a series of solar shields or orbital solar panel farms in the upper atmosphere of the world in question.

     But don’t fret; the harsh environments of Mercury and Venus aren’t the only worlds that we could travel to, after conquering the moon and Mars.

     Even further out into our star system are two moons of great interest.  There is Europa and Ganymede, Jupiter’s sixth and seventh moon, with the latter being the largest known moon in the Solar System.  These moons are both covered in thick layers of ice, meaning there could be no life on their surfaces.  However, it is more than likely that, underneath these layers of ice, are gargantuan oceans.  Most scientists state that they would not be surprised to see some sort of oceanic life underneath this ice.

     Even further out into our system is Saturn’s moon: Titan.  This is the only known moon to have a thick atmosphere with a density that is comparable to that of Earth’s.  On Titan’s surface, there are even stable bodies of liquid.  But don’t pull on your swim trunks just yet, because the liquid is nothing but fossil fuels, and the atmosphere is filled with terrifyingly powerful electrical storms.

      Even more interesting is the fact that Titan is comprised primarily of carbon – the base element of all living things.  Although this world won’t be hosting any air-breathing or seafaring species of Earth’s anytime soon, it may be home to what is called “strange life.”  These are the kinds of living things that are made up of carbon, but can survive outside of the characteristic environments of Earth.  This form of life is still theoretical, but the exploration of the Titan moon may be able to turn this theory into a fact.

     Not counting our moon, there are 169 other moons in our solar system.  While Jupiter’s moons may interest future explorers with the massive underground oceans of Europa or Ganymede, or the vast lakes of fossil fuels on Titan, the ferocious volcanoes of Io, or even the numerous organic materials of Callisto, the other moons of our star system may have astronomically more important findings underneath their mysterious and fractured surfaces.

     But we’re not the only ones here, you know.  The Milky Way galaxy is 100 to 400 billion stars in all, with stars that range from thousands of times larger than our own, to a few times smaller.  Each of these stars present different frontiers to search and explore.  Whether it be the star that is most like our own, Epsilon Eridani – approximately 10 light years away – or the red dwarf star, Gliese 581, that is orbited by a planet just like Earth, except that it is five times more massive.

     There are the dusty nebulae that are forming brand new stars inside their luminescent clouds, and there are stars that are finishing their lives by calmly cooling down, or throwing tantrums and exploding with as much energy as they produced throughout their entire lifespan.  There are the massive stars that are experiencing cataclysmic collapses and subsequent destruction as they enter a hypernova phase and collapse into black holes.  There are also stars that have finished their supernova phase and have become rapidly spinning pulsars.

     No matter which way you look at it, our universe is a vast tableau of intrigue and information that the human race doesn’t have a prayer of ever completely understanding.  But one day we will be gone from Earth, from our Solar System, and out there, trying the best we can to fathom what envelopes us all.