Have you ever thought about jetting off to live on the Moon? Turns out, scientists have been exploring what it would take to live on another world for some time. But living on the Moon is no easy feat, and there are plenty of hurdles that we’ll need to solve before we can pack our bags.
1. How Will We Get Power?
In order to live on the Moon, we’ll need a reliable and renewable energy supply. Although NASA is developing power generation systems that could support longer stays on the lunar surface, additional energy infrastructure will be needed to make human settlement on the Moon a reality.
In some ways, this challenge is not so different from those on Earth. For example, solar energy is an increasingly efficient and sustainable solution for many of our terrestrial energy needs, and innovators are already working on a variety of solutions to enable solar power generated during the day to be stored and used at night.
However, in other ways, the lunar environment presents unique challenges. Solar energy, for example, is also available on the Moon—but the lunar night is exponentially colder and longer than the night here on Earth. Many terrestrial energy solutions may not hold up to the Moon’s extreme environment without additional innovation.
That’s why NASA is looking at a number of potential technologies that could help address how we’ll get power on the Moon—where we need it, when we need it.
Energy storage systems, such as batteries and fuel cells, could play a big part in enabling settlement on the Moon. Batteries especially have come a long way in the last decade in terms of important technical metrics like efficiency and energy density, as well as on cost.
However, most terrestrial energy storage systems are not built to withstand the extreme temperatures, darkness, and dust that is present on the Moon. As a result, energy storage systems for the lunar environment may require different materials, better safety systems, and the ability to store energy for longer periods of time.
Power Distribution and Management
On Earth, we take the power grid for granted, but it took more than a century to build the grid we rely on today to deliver electricity from centralized power plants to our homes and businesses.
On the Moon, there will be similar needs to distribute power, but also potentially new approaches better suited to the lunar surface. Advanced materials for distribution wires could help ensure less power loss over long distances and better durability. Perhaps most exciting is the potential for wireless power, also called power beaming. These technologies have not yet been widely deployed on Earth, and the Moon could be an important proving ground.
NASA hopes to encourage ideas for these technologies—and others perhaps not yet imagined—in its open innovation challenge, Watts on the Moon.
2. Where we will live
It’s no secret that the Moon isn’t exactly a hospitable environment for humans. If we’re going to live on the Moon, there is a lot that we’d need to do to make it safe and comfortable. NASA Centennial Challenges has already started exploring this, but here are some big obstacles that will need to be overcome.
The Moon's environment is not nearly as easy to live in as Earth's. If we were to live on the Moon, one thing we would have to contend with is toxic lunar dust. Apollo 17 astronauts complained that the dust made their eyes water and made their throats sore. If we were to stay on the Moon for longer periods of the time, the effects would likely be far more dangerous.
Lunar dust isn’t the only issue. Because of the Moon’s sparse atmosphere, there is no protection from meteorites or radiation. The temperature fluctuations on the Moon are also intense, ranging from -248 to 123 degrees Celsius (-414 to 253 degrees Fahrenheit).
To make the Moon habitable, we would need to live in shelters. In addition to protecting us from meteorites, radiation and toxic lunar dust, a sealed shelter would allow us to breathe.
Taking a breath on the Moon would be deadly. The Moon technically does have an atmosphere, but the gases are so spread out that they aren’t much help for breathing.
Luckily, experiments on the International Space Station have found one way around this. They rely on a recycling air system, which could be adapted for the Moon. This could look like planting oxygen-emitting plants in lunar greenhouses, and then sending the purified air through sealed habitation pods. Scientific challenge aside, this would be an entirely new way of life that we would have to adapt to.
3. How will we grow food
To survive on the Moon for an extended period, people will need a way to produce food.
One way to secure a continuous food supply is to regularly ship supplies from Earth. But, relying on food shipments would be costly and inefficient, and would require some serious ingenuity. An alternative could be to grow food on-site, which would give inhabitants access to fresher options.
As you can probably guess, growing food in space is quite different from planting a vegetable garden in your backyard. Before we can live on the Moon, we will need to solve several problems that come with planting food in space.
One question is whether the soil on the Moon can support plants. Unlike terrestrial soil, lunar soil does not contain reactive nitrogen, a mineral that is necessary for plant growth. In one study from 2019, researchers were able to harvest tomatoes, peas, radishes, cress, and rye from simulated lunar soil. Research on this is still in its early stages, but this study shows a step in a promising direction.
Another potential roadblock is the high levels of radiation on the Moon. Since the Moon doesn’t have the same thick protective atmosphere as the Earth, particles can get to the lunar surface and cause damage to plants. Some sort of shield or blocking mechanism, such as a lunar greenhouse, may be necessary to grow plants on the Moon.
Another issue comes up when we think about watering the crops. While the discovery of detectable molecular water on the sunlit surface of the Moon in October 2020 suggests that water may be more widespread, and not limited to the shadowed, colder regions, it still yet to be determined how easily it can be accessed. If this lunar water is clean and easily attainable, then it would be much quicker and cheaper than shuttling a water supply from Earth.
In addition, NASA scientists have experimented with many different strategies for watering plants in challenging environments and are currently able to grow food on the space station. This is a promising development, and it shows us that it’s possible to grow plants in microgravity environments.
So, can we live on the Moon?
Short answer: it’s possible!
The lunar environment poses unique challenges. However, experts are working to deal with issues related to the technical questions, and there are promising developments coming out regularly.
There are plenty of problems we’d need to solve before we’re able to live on the Moon. Luckily for us, citizen science can help fill in the gaps and generate new solutions.
Living on the Moon would be a giant leap, but we’re taking small steps to make it a reality.