Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Robot Moon Base


No, it's not the title of my latest novel, although it does sound cool.  Actually, I read an article about one of Saturn's moons named Enceladus.  Now at last count Saturn has 62 moons (I think), but the number keeps rising.  What makes Enceladus special?

When the Cassini spacecraft flew by Enceladus, it noted that near the moon's southern pole there were plumes of water blasting up into space.  Scientists theorize there may be liquid water under the moon's surface, which escapes through cracks.  Giant Saturn sitting nearby may be the cause of these plumes.  It's interesting because anytime you have water, there is the possibility of it supporting some form of life.

This got me thinking that with all the planets and moons around, there are plenty of fascinating places to explore right here in our own solar system.  We may not have the faster-than-light technology needed to reach different stars, but there is plenty to explore in our own back yard.  Which is a good argument for returning to the Earth's Moon and establishing a base.

Unlike the International Space Station where there is no gravity, the Moon does have 1/6 of Earth's gravity.  This may prolong the period astronauts could stay there before suffering too many health problems.  If we had a Moon base, we could use it as a part-way point for vehicles launched from Earth to stop and refuel, or for vehicles to launch from the Moon.  The escape velocity needed to launch from Earth is 11.2 kilometers per second, whereas on the Moon it's only 2.4 km/s, meaning a vehicle would use a lot less fuel to leave the Moon.

Even if we can't put humans on the Moon to run the base, we should consider a robotic way station that could provide refueling and repairs.  Robots are well suited to working in harsh environments like the Moon, and an active base would allow us to send a stream of explorer vehicles out across our solar system.  We may not be ready for the stars, but there are plenty of things we can learn here at home.

(The Enceladus article is from the 10 June 2011 issue of Science.  Further info on Cassini from http://www.sciencemag.org.  Moon stats from solarviews.org.  And escape velocity numbers from wiki.answers.com.  The pic is from:spaceart1.ning.com)

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