There is growing interest in sending manned missions to the Moon, and not just for a few days as happened under the Apollo program, but for longer periods of weeks or even months. For a long-term mission like this, any astronaut crew would need a habitat where they could live and work during their time on the lunar surface, so a new type of lunar structure will be required. What is the best way to build a lunar habitat? That is a question that various space agencies and private companies are pondering. The European Space Agency (ESA) recently shared an idea, which is to create an inflatable moon base.
The idea is to prefabricate lightweight structures that could be packed into a small space for transport, then inflated once a crew reaches the moon. The structures would be buried under several meters of lunar soil, called regolith, to protect astronauts and their equipment from radiation. And on the surface, mirrors would be placed that would track the sun and reflect it back into a greenhouse where plants could be grown to produce oxygen.
The design, from the Austrian company Pneumocell, was recently submitted to ESA and has several advantages over other habitat concepts. One big advantage is the lightweight nature of inflatable structures, as there are strict weight limits on what can be launched into space, and more weight requires more fuel and a larger rocket. Another advantage is the modularity of the system, which allows different structures to be added as needed for various missions.
In its report on the project, Pneumocell says that the habitat could be launched with currently available rockets. “We checked which of the existing or planned spacecraft could be used to transport the material and astronauts to the lunar site, where the habitat should be built,” says the report. “While the SpaceX spacecraft would clearly be capable of transporting the necessary components to the Moon, our concept could also be realized with the help of smaller rockets such as Ariane-64, in combination with the planned European Large Logistics Lander.”
The report states that the next step would be to build a prototype of the habitat on Earth to verify its performance under real-world conditions.