Can We Terraform the Moon? A Second Home, Next Door?
How to Terraform the Moon: Is It Possible?
You're probably pretty familiar with the moon. It's big, round, and affects the Earth in many ways, including the tides. While there is debate still about its origins, there is no doubting the fact that it has fascinated mankind for millennia.
After astronauts visited the moon in 1969 and throughout the 1970s, we learned a lot more about it. It is indeed beautiful and picturesque, but it is cold and unforgiving. It has no atmosphere, and it possesses a fraction of Earth's gravitation pull. In short, it's not a particularly hospitable place to live!
If we're ever to live there, we'll have to change that unforgiving environment. Terraforming the moon is one of the proposed ways to make it a little bit more like Earth. But how can we terraform the moon?
This article will explore several ideas on how a terraformed moon would come about, and the practical ways in which we might start living way up there. Let's get started!
In The Moon's Favor:
There are a lot of things that make living on the moon undesirable right now. However, there are some clear advantages:
- The moon is very close, so traveling to and from it would be much easier than, say, Mars. Communicating with the moon would be nearly instantaneous, whereas other planets in the Solar System would experience communication delays.
- The moon's low gravity make it desirable for construction and space launch purposes. It's a lot easier to launch a spacecraft from the moon, since less energy is needed to escape its gravitational field.
- It receives the same amount / quality of light as Earth does, which is good news for any plants we'd want to grow there.
Terraforming the Moon: What Has To Change?
Perhaps the best place to start is to look at what needs to change for the moon to be a bit more friendly to Earthlings. Here are a few of the facts.
Temperature of the moon:
This one might be obvious, but it's a big one: the moon is cold! The temperature of the moon ranges greatly from day to night, and it's alternately boiling and freezing.
Because it doesn't have an atmosphere, the moon cannot trap and retain heat, nor can it insulate to keep heat out. As such, it fluctuates wildly depending on solar radiation. It can reach up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (around 122 C) in direct sunlight. In the coldest spots outside of sunlight, it drops to -243 F (-153 C).
If man is ever to live on the moon, we'll have to ensure the temperature is a lot more manageable. That means figuring out a way to insulate the moon's surface to keep the temperature more consistent. The easiest way to do that is with an atmosphere. Which brings us to our next one...
Atmosphere of the moon:
The atmosphere of the moon (or lack thereof) is another major roadblock to man living there without a spacesuit. Currently, the moon only has a trace atmosphere. It doesn't have the gravitational force necessary to trap and retain an atmosphere, so any ambient gasses are gradually lost into space. They either drift off on their own, or are stripped away by solar radiation.
Lack of atmosphere is bad news for a couple of reasons. First, we need a very specific atmosphere to breathe comfortably. It has to contain about 78% nitrogen (or some other inert gas like argon) and 20% oxygen (the remainder being trace gasses) for us to get what we need, or we will asphyxiate.
Secondly, we require atmospheric pressure. Depressurization will rapidly cause a number of physiological problems and lead quickly to death. It's for that reason that all aircraft are pressurized when they fly above a certain altitude. Since the moon has no atmosphere, there's no pressure, and that's a problem.
Gravity of the moon:
Another big issue (or potential issue) involved with terraforming the moon is gravity. Humans are accustomed to Earth's gravitational pull. We use it to move and live freely. The moon has about 1/6th of the gravity of Earth, so everything is much lighter.
It might seem fun to run around in around 16% gravity, but it's a lot more challenging than you'd think. We rely heavily on gravity for movement. It's really difficult to walk without it, and that makes moving around on the moon pretty difficult, akin to walking in head-to-toe water.
Beyond that, we know that people require gravity for our bodies to remain healthy. Astronauts in the International Space Station must exercise regularly to stay fit, and even with that there are long term issues involving bone health. Man was not meant to live in zero gravity, and it affects our well-being.
We aren't sure if the moon's tiny gravitational pull is enough to counteract the health issues experienced by the ISS astronauts, and we likely won't know for sure until a permanent base is established.
There are numerous other factors at play. The moon doesn't have very much surface water, so even if the temperature and air pressure was increased to Earth standards, we'd likely have to import water from another source (a comet or water rich asteroid).
The day cycle is much different on the moon, with a lunar day lasting around 29 days. If we were to terraform the moon and start to live there, the day / night cycle would be drastically different than it is on Earth, and plants, animals and humans alike may not be able to adapt.
The moon also doesn't have a magnetic field like Earth does, so harmful radiation from the sun wouldn't be filtered out as well. A thick ozone layer would help, but it would still be a lot more harmful to walk on the surface of a terraformed moon than it is to walk around on the Earth.
Steps to Terraform the Moon
So if we ever want to ditch the spacesuits, we'll clearly need to make some major changes to the moon. Here are a few steps we'll need to get started on.
Increase the Atmospheric Pressure:
We'll have to boost the moon's tiny atmosphere, adding in the gasses we'll need to breathe. What's more, we'll need some greenhouse gasses to start capturing and retaining heat. Carbon dioxide is the obvious choice, but there are other options like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are excellent at retaining heat.
We'll need to gather gargantuan amounts of nitrogen and oxygen, and get the mix just right. We'd probably have to procure these from asteroids, since syphoning them off from Earth isn't practical. It's possible that some of these gasses could be produced from the moon's crust.
Atmospheric production would have to be a constant thing if terraforming the moon is to be a reality. Gas will be lost into space constantly, sort of like a leaky balloon.
Increase / Stabilize the Surface Temperature:
The surface temperature of the moon will likely increase with the addition of a thick atmosphere, but it's very likely that additional climate engineering will be required to bring the temperature up or down to reasonable levels for habitation.
This can be done a number of ways, including using giant orbiting shades and mirrors to redirect sunlight, using floating mirror 'clouds' in the atmosphere, and adding large bodies of water on the surface to help regulate the temperature.
There are many hurdles here, primarily involving the longer day the moon experiences.
Another essential for life as we know it is liquid water. The moon is currently too hot / cold to maintain liquid water, but once it cools down it's possible.
There is likely a fair amount of water hidden away in the moon. India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe confirmed the existence of water in the moon's crust, and they hypothesize that there may be whole ice sheets hidden below the surface. Once it warms up, oceans and lakes may start to appear.
If there isn't enough water, we'll need to import water to the moon, likely by impacting comets or asteroids bearing water on the surface. A healthy hydrosphere is vital to regulate temperature and support plant life.
Introduce Plant Life:
To maintain a good amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, and to grow food to eat, we'll need to start introducing hardy plants once the temperature, atmosphere and hydrosphere are up to par.
Lichens are notoriously hardy, and they'd be a good place to begin. After that hardy grasses could be introduced. Eventually, we can move on to full fledged crops and trees.
We've already seen signs that plants can thrive in low gravity settings, so hopefully our local plants can adapt to this new environment.
That Doesn't Sound Too Difficult...
After reading this, it might sound pretty simple. Why haven't we started on this already?
Realistically, terraforming the moon is a gargantuan task, thousands of degrees bigger than any engineering project man has ever tackled. Much of the tasks require technology that doesn't even exist yet.
We will need to literally move mountains by sending asteroids and comets to collide with the moon. We'll potentially need to add oceans of water and build mirrors and shades that are hundreds of kilometres long. Frankly, it isn't possible yet.
Beyond that, we don't even know if life on the moon will ever be healthy.
An Alternative to Terraforming the Moon
I believe that, in the near future, humans will live on the moon. Permanently. It makes too much sense. It's a great place to build, grow, harvest resources, and launch into the rest of our solar back yard.
Over thousands of years the moon might become more hospitable to life, but in the short term, there is a way to live there, comfortably.
No, I'm not talking about the movie starring Pauly Shore. A biosphere is a completely self-sufficient, closed system in which life can flourish. Water, air and biological material is cycled, and it theoretically requires very little input from external sources.
A biosphere seems like a great way to introduce a comfortable, Earth-like way of life to the surface of the moon.
Far less material, water and gas would be required to launch, and solar radiation could be mitigated through shielded panels and external mirrors. Solar power would be abundant and uninterrupted by cloud cover, so energy wouldn't be an issue.
Biospheres could be constructed on the surface like conventional Earth buildings, or they could be built using natural or artificial caves, as the surrounding rock would make a great insulator.
We're still a ways off technologically, but we're getting closer with experiments like Biosphere 2. I believe that in the somewhat near future, we'll see biospheres popping up all over the moon (and possibly in places like Antarctica as well).
Some day we may look up and see a big, blue green orb looking back at us. I hope to see it myself. Thanks for reading!