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Lunar dome concepts

The other thing I needed to research for my book is what a realistic lunar dome would actually look like and be made out of.

You know that Jetson’s style glass dome, straight out of the sci-fi imagination of 1950s America? That’s where I started when I first began to imagine what a lunar dome might look like, and how it all might work.

But technology has improve immensely since the 1950s, and glass domes are not releastic on a moon with no atmosphere and a danger of meteorites, either to live in or maintain. So I went in search of more modern lunar dome concepts.

The newest and most realistic concept I found was on Gizmodo. They propose running moon stuff (i.e. the soil/crust of the moon) through a 3d printer to turn it into a cement-like material. They’d use that stuff (arranged in a cellular structure), plus interior inflatables to hold atmosphere, to build the domes.

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According to ESA’s human spaceflight team’s Scott Hovland: “3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth.”

This is great, because it means that we don’t need to carry building supplies up there. We mostly use what the moon provides.

Additional ideas and questions came from Quora user Robert Walker, who wrote more about the specifics and logistics of establishing such a base on the Moon or Mars. He suggests putting the colony in a large caldera or smaller crater, using the natural structure for stability, and raising a dome above it. He wrote an even longer piece here. I haven’t read all of it yet, but it’s very interesting and asks all sorts of questions I never even thought about.

That’s one of the joys of doing this kind of research—I’m introduced to so many new ideas.

And then there’s this idea of setting up a colony on the moon, but beneath the moon’s surface inside of a lava cave, which scientists have posited could be quite large on the moon. So-called “lava caves” were apparently made during the cooling period while the moon’s surface was forming after the impact with Earth that made it.

Unlike Earth, the Moon lacks a thick atmosphere and magnetic field to protect it against cosmic radiation. The absence of an atmospheric buffer also means that the Moon’s surface receives more frequent meteorite impacts and more extremes of temperature.

For example, the Moon’s surface temperature can vary by several hundred degrees C during the course of a lunar day.

Cave opening
(Image copyright: NASA) Cave entrances like this one in Mare Tranquilitatis may open into lava tubes

But housing bases underground, inside lava tubes, could offer shielding against these risks.

The lunar tunnels are expected to be larger than those already discovered on our planet, because of the Moon’s lower gravity. No-one has yet definitively discovered an example on the Moon, but spacecraft have revealed cave entrances called skylights that may open into lava tubes.

Skylights! Holy crap, that’s amazing. There are so many great story seeds in these articles. Writers who have a hard time coming up with story ideas, take heed.

Clearly, the Jetson-style 1950s vision of the future didn’t hold up over time, especially not glass domes, and definitely not on the moon where there’s no atmosphere.

Those finnicky laws of nature, they’re just so rigid.

I’m going to try for something more modern and realistic for the lunar base in Translocator 2. You can let me know, when the book is done, if I’ve achieved it. Again, I don’t know how “realistic” a book about translocators and ancient aliens will come across, but I always try to make sure the science-inspired parts to hold up under scrutiny—to the best of my ability. This kind of research helps.

Nuclear reactors in space

When I hit that wall the other day and decided to rejig the ending of Translocator 2 (my sci-fi thriller novel WIP), a lunar nuclear reactor became important to the plot. I’d planned this from the beginning, but I was hazy on specifics.

Realizing I needed to backfill some of the details in the book, and wanting to make sure that it’s as realistic and technically accurate as a novel about teleportation, ancient aliens, and Mayan ruins can possibly be, I started searching around on the interwebz…

And MY GOD was I happy with what I found.

I already had an idea that NASA uses portable nuclear reactors to power their missions to the moon and Mars—not only do I love reading about NASA missions and have all my life, but nuclear power was also used as a plot point in Andy Weir’s The Martian.

Alas, no Mars or Mars missions in this book. But I found all sorts of fascinating stuff to inspire me.

fission_b_x220.jpgLike this Technology Review article on how NASA stress-tested a lunar nuclear reactor made with two Stirling engines circulating liquid metal back in 2009. Apparently they plan to put people back on the moon in 2020? Does anyone know if that’s still happening?

And this one from The Telegraph about how China wants to send people to the moon to mine Helium-3. I had no idea this was even a thing, or that a powerful isotope was present in the moon’s crust.

This extraordinary substance is the isotope helium-3, invaluable in ensuring the safety of nuclear power stations on Earth, and providing an all-powerful rocket fuel.

It is rare on Earth, being blown away by the solar wind. It is found in Troclotite, a metal of magnesium and iron, again rare but plentiful in the Moon’s crust.

My mind is racing by this point. I can’t possibly use all of this in the book I’m writing. I’m already overwhelmed by the number of threads I must tie together. It’s fascinating to me all the same.

A fully-loaded spaceship’s cargo base could power a quarter of the world for a year. This means that helium-3 has a potential economic value in the order of about £1 billion a ton, making it the Moon’s most valuable commodity except perhaps for astronomy and promoting tourism.

Wow. The idea of people mining the moon, which controls our tides, which influences our weather patterns and ocean life and much more, is absolutely terrifying.

But wait! Here’s more about the radioisotope power systems used by NASA “in numerous long-term missions, from Voyagers 1 and 2 to the Mars rovers”: a brief history on energy.gov.

If you want to know more about the many generations of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) used by NASA for spacecraft, see their page on RTGs at nasa.gov.

VikingSNAP19RTG1Here’s a cool cutaway diagram of a “SNAP-19 RTG used to power NASA’s two Viking landers.”

 

OK, last thing… from R&D Mag, “Nuclear Reactors to Power Space Exploration”:

Lessons learned from the kiloPower development program are being leveraged to develop a Mega Watt class of reactors termed MegaPower reactors. These concepts all contain intrinsic safety features similar to those in kiloPower, including reactor self-regulation, low reactor core power density and the use of heat pipes for reactor core heat removal. The use of these higher power reactors is for terrestrial applications, such as power in remote locations, or to power larger human planetary colonies. The MegaPower reactor concept produces approximately two megawatts of electric power. The reactor would be attached to an open air Brayton cycle power conversion system. A Brayton power cycle uses air as the working fluid and as the means of ultimate heat removal.

How cool. MegaPower reactors… I like the sound of that.

At a certain point, enough research is enough. I have to finish fixing up the plot, and make a list of stuff to go back and fix. And then I have to get writing the end of this book 🙂 There are about 10 chapters of fast paced action and satisfying resolution left to draft.

I didn’t even get to show you the fun concepts I found for the lunar domes. Another time, perhaps.