Brussels, 15 Mar 2006
Establishing a colony on the moon may sound the stuff of science fiction to the majority, but not for materials scientist Niklas Järvstråt, who is working with around 60 international partners to do just that.
Ambitious? 'It is logical, sustainable and very much within our reach, both materially and financially,' says Dr Järvstråt. 'Why treat a space project as a disposable unit, when it is possible to build a base, which can thrive, expand, and enhance man's benevolent presence in space?' he asks.
While the concept of a colony on the moon may seem quite bizarre to many readers, the Swedish scientist, based at University West in Trollhätten, is not working alone - he has around 60 international partners committed to the project. And neither is Dr Järvstråt the only person talking publicly about living on the moon. US President George Bush announced a new space programme in January 2004 that included using the moon as a base for the exploration of other planets.
Asked whether his own ideas would be used in a race against the Americans, Dr Järvstråt conceded that it would be 'necessary to work together' with the US on account of Sweden's size. 'Sweden is too small a country to have its own colony,' he said. For a small country, Sweden has however contributed a great deal to progress in space. SMART-1, the only spacecraft currently orbiting the moon, was built by a Swedish contractor for the European Space Agency (ESA).
Around two-thirds of the partners in the project are from Europe, with most of the remaining partners coming from the US or Canada. There is also one Japanese partner in the consortium.
Dr Järvstråt has been in touch with NASA, and has had positive feedback on his ideas, he says. In the year 2000, his project received an indirect grant from NASA - the funding could not be awarded overseas and so was given to a US partner, with whom Dr Järvstråt collaborated.
It is the self-sufficiency aspect of the colony that still requires the most research. Oxygen would not be a problem, and hydrogen exists at the poles of the moon, so water could also be made available. The biggest problem, according to Dr Järvstråt, is the lack of nitrogen. Without nitrogen, it would be very difficult to grow plants in the lunar soil, as Dr Järvstråt envisages. His solution is to obtain nitrogen from meteorites. Various studies of the moon's soil have shown lunar soil to be an accumulation of debris from meteorites, and possibly comets, that have crashed into the moon over 4.4 billion years. Added to this is fine dust and gases from interstellar space and especially from the solar wind. Research suggests that it is the impact of meteorites that has led to the depositing of nitrogen in lunar soil as it has been found in certain locations and not others.
Dr Järvstråt would like to see an initial colony of 500 people until complete self-sufficiency is achieved, when the colony would be allowed to grow. This total figure is similar to that proposed by NASA, except that the US plan would see smaller groups of people taking turns to live in the colony until self-sufficiency is achieved. The colony would be located underground.
In terms of timescale, the US plan is to start building the colony in 2018, and Dr Järvstråt believes that this date is realistic. If Dr Järvstråt's consortium is to contribute, it must first secure funding however. Discussions with various funding sources are ongoing, but none has yet been secured. The project team has been submitting proposals to the European Commission under its research framework programmes for six or seven years, but has so far been unsuccessful. He remains confident however that funding will be found, and says that EU evaluators' reviews of his project proposals are getting better.
While the colony would be self-sustaining, Dr Järvstråt foresees it maintaining close relations with the Earth, particularly in terms of trade. The lunar colony would contribute towards the development of research and scientific activities, for example in the fields of alternative energy supply and structural materials for spacecraft and satellites. Dr Järvstråt also has lofty ambitions with a view to what the colony could do for humankind: 'At this time of potential fossil fuel shortages, threats of global warming, cultural clashes and population explosion, this concept might well be what stops man's over-exploitation of Mother Earth by uniting governments and nations, scientists and laymen in mutual cooperation and understanding,' states a press release on the initiative.
Speaking to CORDIS News, Dr Järvstråt also gave other reasons for going to the moon, and for establishing a colony there. He believes that humankind should expand into space, and that a lunar colony would provide an excellent solution to managing the Earth's limited resources. He also points to the entertainment value of living on the moon. Gravity on the moon is one-sixth of that on Earth, which Dr Järvstråt believes could lead to the conception of lots of new and interesting sports. He also points out that flying would be a real possibility for people living on the moon. Asked whether he is therefore envisaging a colony of very active, sport-loving people, Dr Järvstråt emphasised that the elderly and those with disabilities would also find it easier to move around on the moon on account of the lack of gravity.
Whether Dr Järvstråt and his colleagues would be able to find enough volunteers to set up a colony 384,400 km away from planet Earth remains to be seen. Put to the researcher that the moon's environment would not be particularly stimulating for inhabitants, he said that the underground colony would have its own agricultural areas, which could also serve as parks.
If the necessary funding is secured, the feasibility study will begin in 2006. This will then be followed by a system demonstrator, which will run from 2009 to 2012 on Earth. The next stage would be the setting up of a terrestrial validator on the moon, which will run from 2013 until 2019, and construction and immigration would take place from 2018 to 2024. The self-sufficient lunar colony would be up and running in 2025.