As several nations devise their strategies for exploring the moon, the best way to survive the lunar night is giving space engineers cold sweats.
The moon’s lunar day/night cycle at most places on the surface consists of fourteen Earth days of continuous sunshine followed by fourteen days of constant darkness and intense cold.
Due to the lack of a moderating atmosphere, temperatures on the lunar surface can range from 248 degrees Fahrenheit (120 Celsius) during the day to minus 292 F (minus 180 C) at night. Permanently Shaded Regions (PSRs) on the moon can be even colder, dipping to minus 400 F (minus 240 C).
Related: Artemis 1: the first stage of the return of astronauts to the Moon
Advantages and disadvantages
All of these advantages and disadvantages add up to one of the most demanding environmental challenges that future lunar expeditions will face. Achieving and earning longer and longer human sojourns — perhaps gaining permanent status — will mean tackling the moon’s vicious environment.
In fact, the craters in the permanently shadowed regions are shy spots on the moon in which amounts of water ice might reside. These deposits would be ideal for turning into oxygen, water and even rocket fuel.
Lunar exploration planners explain what needs to happen to operate successfully on the moon, especially at the lunar south pole, laden with PSR and perhaps a rich haven for harvesting water ice.
But here’s the cold, cold fact: It’s not easy.
Read more: The moon’s eerie hot pits may be the nicest place for astronauts
Basic problem, two branches
Dean Eppler, chief lunar scientist at The Aerospace Corporation, said surviving night on the moon is not just a key issue for a lunar south pole site, but for any place we want to be on the moon longer. long as the lunar day.
“I think the basic problem has two branches,” Eppler told Space.com. “The simple survival during the lunar night and operations during the night, whether it’s a “normal” day/night cycle as you would anywhere other than at the poles, and the variable darkness you get at the poles due to the very low angle of solar inclination.”
Eppler said that for future missions, especially for land missions off polar latitudes, hiding might still be the best decision for science operations.
“You don’t do field geology at night,” Eppler said, “but it will probably be a time to do ‘in-house’ activities, such as life sciences, sample analysis and culling. , engineering/maintenance work.” These are tasks not typically performed during daylight hours when crew members are engaged in maximizing their surface, moonwalking operations, he said.
Eppler said he was optimistic about facing the lunar night. “I think we’re much better equipped to handle this now than we were at any other time we considered lunar exploration.”
Although surviving the lunar night outside the polar regions is always a problem, “I think we have that pretty well in hand, and that also applies to areas of the poles shaded by existing terrain as the Sun moves through the sky.”
However, when it comes to the poles, Eppler sees a much more complicated problem. First, there will be significant areas that will be shaded by the terrain long enough that it will be very cold in those places – not PSR cold, but still no different than the equatorial night.
“Secondly, we will have to deal with the problems of working in any PSR area, or in areas which, although not in permanent shade, are still in shade most of the time, enough long to be deep cold inside,” Eppler said. “It’s a huge challenge… so much so that I think we’ll need, for example, a special set of tools that we only use in cold weather,” he added.
Coping with ultra-cold shouldn’t be a difficult problem, said Philip Metzger, planetary scientist at the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida.
“With even just a little power and good insulation, the vehicle can stay warm. The New Horizons spacecraft kept its electronics at room temperature even when far from Pluto’s sun,” Metzger told Space .com.
The key question is where can we get energy on the moon?
Radioactive decay sources can be used, for example. Radioactive heating units (RHUs) can be placed on the vehicle in appropriate locations, Metzger said. “Without a radioactive source, however, it becomes more difficult.”
Metzger envisions a self-contained asset with enough battery capacity to provide the “permanent heat” overnight. “A rover could plug in all night. After sunrise, the asset will recharge. It would take some mass on the moon for proper storage, but with new lunar landers, including the SpaceX Starship online, it should be easily doable,” he said.
Good set of assumptions
Current datasets provide key data on the moon’s temperature, advised Noah Petro of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He is a project scientist for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission which is currently orbiting the moon.
“Fortunately, the temperature data we have from the Diviner instrument on LRO has given us a fantastic set of boundary conditions for what to expect thermally at the poles. From this data set, we know the cold temperatures expected at night and the heat during the day,” said Petro.
Regarding the engineering ability to ring the hardware, Petro said that since the researchers have a good set of assumptions for the environment (temperature, radiation, etc.), he anticipates that the question of lunar survival can build on an already mature understanding of the technical requirements to operate during lunar nights.
Message from Apollo
Looking back to the Apollo era of the 20th century, there are lessons to be relearned, said Clive Neal, lunar exploration expert in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Neal points out that the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) consisted of scientific instruments set up by moonwalkers at the landing site of each of the five Apollo lunar landing missions to land on the Moon after Apollo 11; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind a smaller set of devices called the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package.
However, Neal said the question is, is solar the way to do it? Is the battery technology good enough to allow operations during the lunar night?
“For a lot of things, just surviving the night is not enough,” Neal added. “We must be able to match what was done 50 years ago, in my humble opinion!”
What will it be like to roam and work on lunar territory, Artemis-style?
When it comes to moonwalking suit systems, including boots, gloves and the backpack-style wearable life support system, thermal design issues will be severe, said Eppler of The Aerospace Corporation.
“For example, let’s say you’re standing ankle-deep in a very cold, shaded area, but your legs, torso, etc. are exposed to direct sunlight. You’ll need to make sure the boots and material of the pressure garment do not freeze and break, while ensuring that the upper portions of the suit system do not become so hot that severe heat stress for the crew member is a significant issue,” said Eppler: “It’s a real problem.”
The good news, Eppler concludes, is that the Artemis technologists are trying to come to terms with the set to survive the nighttime situation.
“That tells me we’ll find solutions at some point,” Eppler said. “The time you get into trouble is when people don’t understand or accept the magnitude of the problem…but I don’t think that’s the case here,” he concluded.
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