Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Village on the Moon

By Dave Reneke

The ESA wants to build a Moon base, and the search for ET scales up

It’s been almost 50 years since humans have set foot on the Moon. Now, the European Space Agency is planning to go back and move in.

“Why not have a Moon village?” asked Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the new director general of the ESA. “I don’t mean a few houses, the town hall and a church – the Moon village would consist of a settlement using the capabilities of different space-faring nations in the fields of robotic as well as human activities.”

Woerner believes it’s time to start planning the next phase of humanity’s foothold in space. Technological advancements since the last man left the Moon in 1972 make a Moon settlement less of science fiction setting and more of a design and logistical problem.

Settlements could be built inside the deep craters that litter the Moon’s surface, which would protect residents from dangers like cosmic radiation, micro-meteors and severe temperatures. Indeed, most of the hardest work could be done before any Moon settlers got there with the help of drones and robots.

The first Moon settlers in the ESA’s complex would likely be scientists and researchers. Entrepreneurs are already developing ways to take advantage of the Moon’s natural resources. Earlier this year, NASA teamed up with several companies to come up with ways to mine the Moon for precious elements and materials, including gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, tungsten and helium-3.

This isn’t the first time a space agency has proposed a permanent settlement on the Moon. In 2006 NASA was actively developing plans for a Moon base, including ways to run weekly supply trips from Earth, until budget cuts shut down the Constellation program.

Now, with a little luck, the hot new European vacation spot could have a great view of the planet Earth!

The Search for ET Scales Up

The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) will join in the most powerful, comprehensive and intensive scientific search ever for signs of intelligent life in the universe. The international endeavour, known as Breakthrough Listen, will scan the nearest million stars in our own galaxy and stars in 100 other galaxies for the telltale radio signature of an advanced civilisation.

“Beginning early next year, approximately 20 per cent of the annual observing time on the GBT will be dedicated to searching a staggering number of stars and galaxies for signs of intelligent life via radio signals,” said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates the GBT. ”

Australia’s Parkes Telescope will also be involved in Breakthrough Listen, the biggest scientific search ever undertaken to find those elusive signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. It will be 50 times more sensitive and cover ten times more of the sky than previous searches.

If a civilisation based around one of the 1000 nearest stars transmits to us with the power of common aircraft radar, the GBT and the Parkes Telescope could detect it.

The Breakthrough Listen team will use and develop the most powerful software for sifting and searching the expected flood of data, which will all be open source. This will very likely constitute the largest amount of scientific data ever made publicly available.

Both the software and the hardware used in the Breakthrough Listen project will be compatible with other telescopes around the world so that they could join the search for intelligent life. As well as using the Breakthrough Listen software, scientists and members of the public will be able to add to it, developing their own applications to analyse the data.

Breakthrough Listen will also be joining and supporting SETI@home, the groundbreaking distributed computing platform with nine million volunteers around the world donating their spare computing power to search astronomical data for signs of life. Collectively, they constitute one of the largest supercomputers in the world.

The 100-metre GBT is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Its location in the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the incredibly sensitive telescope from unwanted radio interference, enabling it to perform unique observations.

David Reneke is an astronomy lecturer and teacher, a feature writer for major Australian newspapers and magazines, and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Subscribe to David’s free Astro-Space newsletter at www.davidreneke.com