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24 March 2017

Powered by Moondust - Surviving the Extreme Cold of Lunar Night

Future missions to the moon, whether manned or not, face a major issue in the form of temperature. During the 14 day-long lunar night, temperatures on the surface of the moon plummet below -170°C, causing researchers to question how they might ensure that their creations can withstand the bitter cold. If this challenge is not conquered, the future of prolonged manned missions is looking uncertain. After all, our bodies weren’t built for such extremes.

To put the issue into context, Russia’s Lunokhod-2 rover famously fell victim to the extreme cold of the lunar night, ultimately perishing in May of 1973 when its radioactive heater finally broke down after 4 months. The Apollo manned missions, which ran from 1969 to 1972, avoided this problem by limiting their stay to a few days, escaping the lunar surface before darkness set in.

If we are to eventually settle on the moon, as various space agencies around the globe aim to do, we must be able to endure not only the days, but also the elongated nights, during which solar energy and heat is entirely unavailable. As such, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been busy attempting to develop a solution, and they seem to have made a breakthrough.

Taking advantage of daytime surface temperatures in excess of 100°C, ESA plan to use moondust to create a heat engine which would be kept running during the day directly by the heat of the sun. During this time, it will also store excess heat in the soil, ready to be released during the long nights in order to keep the heat engine running.

“Up until now, radioactive heat and power sources have been the preferred solution for lunar habitats, but these would multiply the cost and complexity of any expedition,” explains ESA’s Moritz Fontaine.

“So we’re exploring a more sustainable solution, using the capacity of moondust to absorb and store energy when hit by sunlight, then releasing this energy during the lunar night.

“The principle has been worked out in detail,” adds Moritz. “The next step, being undertaken through ESA’s General Studies Programme, is to perform numerical and simulation studies to put values on the heat storage and electricity provision the system would enable.

“The results should then allow the construction of a small demonstrator to test the concept in practice.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.