May 25, 2017
Getting To Mars: Moon Mines And Space Station Fueling Depots For Safer, Less Expensive Trips

A couple of the most pressing problems concerning future missions to Mars is having enough fuel to make the journey there (and back) and making the trip as cost-effective as possible, and there are developers who have figured out how to achieve both -- moon mines and a fuel station in space. A group of nearly three dozen students recently convened at a conference hosted by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena to share ideas on how to, in effect, create and prepare the necessary elements to ensure a permanent space-faring society.

The journey to Mars is no longer a far-off, projected dream of imaginative engineers, scientists, and science fiction authors. It is a fully realized project being worked on by several governmental space agencies and an even greater number of private sector companies. And one or more of those entities will launch for Mars within the next decade and a half.

But for a continuing enterprise, where trips are made to Mars on a somewhat continuing basis, there needs to be something -- or several somethings, actually -- in place to allow for continuity in space travel and exploration, things both practical and built with multiple uses in mind -- things that would cut the costs of getting into space and out to farther destinations, making them less expensive than at the present going (and exorbitant) rates. To look for such solutions, the 2017 Caltech Space Challenge met in late March, as detailed via The Conversation, to discuss proposals for designs of what a lunar launch and supply station for deep space missions might entail, what the completed projects might look like, and how the individual components and completed system(s) would work in operation.

Even though NASA currently has plans for a cislunar space station as a jump-off point for its first manned mission to Mars, most envision some sort of Moon base as either the initial launch location or at least operating and in place in a supporting role for Mars missions. This is, in fact, exactly what former astronaut Buzz Aldrin envisions for the push to colonize Mars, where a lunar base and a series of space stations, operated with international cooperation, work to effect a spacecraft circuit of commercial, exploration, and colonization missions.

a base on Mars
A Moon base is integral to plans for a permanent support system for missions to Mars and beyond. [Image by Red monkey/Shutterstock]

The Moon will likely play a crucial role in the continuing push into space, given that it has an abundance of ice on its surface (in shadowed craters) -- ice that can be mined and refined (optimally, at a facility on the Moon itself), broken down into its basic elements to make rocket fuel. Doing so would allow for spaceships to be fueled and refueled at orbiting space stations -- or at the Moon base itself -- at far less cost than the price of lifting tons of fuel (at present, necessary for the entire trip) and equipment off the ground, where each mission expends massive amounts of fuel during each departure to fight gravity and reach escape velocity. Such fueling stations would also be extremely cost-effective in that the amount of fuel expenditure would be minimal due to the light gravity (the Moon is one-sixth that of Earth) or the absence thereof (on space stations).

The Conversation writes, "At present, a human Mars mission is estimated to cost as much as US$100 billion, and will need hundreds of tons of cargo. Delivering more cargo from Earth to Mars with fewer rocket launches would save billions of dollars and years of time."

Jupiter moon base
A permanent Moon base and space stations are the stepping stones for humanity's move out into the solar system. [Image by Nostalgia for Infinity/Shutterstock]

Of course, the benefits of being able to mine ice from the Moon and refine ice into rocket fuel to produce immense cost reductions in space travel and exploration will extend itself to missions beyond Mars. But a Moon base and space stations appear to be not only staples of futuristic fictional steps to getting to Mars but also mainstays for actual plans to create workable support systems for a permanent and continuing push outward into the solar system.

[Featured Image by Juanmrgt/Thinkstock/Getty Images]