Space billionaires could use the moon to harvest rocket fuel for a mission to Mars, according to a plan outlined by scientists Sunday in the academic journal The Conversation.
Sending astronauts to Mars may require building a series of small moon-bases to mine and manufacture rocket fuel, according to scientists from the University of California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Tokyo and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Under this plan, robots would mine rocket fuel on the moon that would then be shipped up to lunar orbit for the trip to Mars.
“Any rocket leaving Earth has to carry all the fuel it will ever use to get to its destination and, if needed, back again,” the researchers wrote. “That fuel is heavy – and getting it moving at such high speeds takes a lot of energy. If we could refuel in orbit, that launch energy could lift more people or cargo or scientific equipment into orbit. Then the spacecraft could refuel in space, where Earth’s gravity is less powerful.”
The scientists anticipate a working “gas station” could be built in the early 2030s, just in time for the first human missions to Mars by NASA in 2033.
“The moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, which makes it an attractive alternative base,” the article continues. “The moon also has ice, which we already know how to process into a hydrogen-oxygen propellant that we use in many modern rockets.”
The researchers claim this technique could reduce to cost of sending astronauts to Mars enough so that it could be financed by a space billionaire such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Robert Bigelow, or a private team. The billionaires all have companies attempting to deliver astronauts and cargo to the moon. Several teams competing for a share of Google’s $30 million cash prize are planning to launch rovers to the moon.
Musk’s company SpaceX plans to send a pair of humans to orbit the moon by 2018, while Bezos’ Blue Origin intends to deliver satellites, science experiments and eventually astronauts to the moon in the 2020s.
Two of the billionaires are both developing new rockets to go to the moon, with Bezo’s unveiling animation of its new rocket design in April.
SpaceX is modifying its current Dragon capsules to carry astronauts into orbit, and ultimately to the moon and Mars. The capsule has already successfully flown un-crewed resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. The company will send the first crewed trip to the ISS in mid-2018, according to Musk. Blue Origin plans to launch its first crewed test flight this year and start commercial crewed missions to suborbital space in 2018.
NASA also has plans to use the moon as a refueling station for Mars by building a “deep space gateway” in lunar orbit, the space agency’s director of human exploration announced this week.
NASA will launch four manned flights between 2018 and 2026 to the space around the moon in order to build a “gateway” station. The station consists of a science research module, a power source and an airlock for visiting vehicles and is intended to test systems used to send astronauts to Mars.
After the station is built, NASA will send a “Deep Space Transport vehicle” to the station to be refueled. The U.S. manned missions to Mars in 2033 could take off from the moon using that vehicle.
Despite SpaceX’s more short-term timeline in the moon race, Blue Origin beat Musk’s company in the race to successfully land the first reusable rocket after officially going to space in November 2015. The race was marked by both billionaires aggressively tweeting at one another to explain why their rocket design was better.
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