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Last Updated: Friday, 26 August 2005, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
How to set up a moon base
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Oxygen factory on the moon

If money were no object, what would it take to build a moon base fit for human habitation? Nasa is looking into just that, using the Hubble Space Telescope to hunt for suitable locations. And what if they build on one of the millions of plots already "sold" by entrepreneurs?

It's easy - relatively - to visit to the Moon, just five days' spaceflight from the Earth. What's considerably more complicated is to set up a lunar base where humans can live, work and breathe.

That's just what Nasa is trying to do, using the Hubble Space Telescope to scout possible locations as part of George Bush's push to revisit the Moon by 2018.

Air, water and electricity are the key requirements of any habitation. Because it would be prohibitively expensive to ship out supplies, these would need to be produced on the Moon itself. For the raw materials are in plentiful - if not easily extractable - supply.

Moon crater
Nasa looking at three locations
Two sites close to where Apollo 15 and 17 touched down in 70s
Third is 42km-wide crater near Moon's equator
First results due in October
What Nasa is looking for are sites with a good supply of ilmenite, a mineral from which to extract oxygen, hydrogen and helium. As well as producing air and water, the flammable gases could be burned to generate electricity. Nasa scientists know to look for ilmenite, as it was found in soil samples brought back by the Apollo missions.

"You'd also want to use lunar rocks as building supplies - it is so costly to lift even an extra kilo of steel into space, running to many hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Professor Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist best known for heading the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars.

"It would be not too difficult to make bricks and mortar from lunar rocks, and ilmenite would provide a nice supply of titanium, a light strong metal, and iron."

'Dark side' of the Moon

As a moon base would doubtless be involved in research, its equipment would need to be shielded from the interference spewed out by Earth's electronic chatter. This means a site on the far side of the Moon, says Professor Pillinger.

You'd want to use lunar rocks as building supplies - it is so costly to lift even an extra kilo of steel into space
Colin Pillinger
Which does rather leave its inhabitants stuck for communicating with those back home. The answer, he says, is to deploy a battery of satellites to relay messages.

Then there are the extremes of temperature - ranging from about 100C down to at least -73C - the risk of solar flares and damage done by abrasive moon dust.

While planning permission is not an issue - there is no law in space - a claim of ownership has been made by US entrepreneur Dennis Hope, who in 1980 spotted a loophole in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

Although no country or government can lay claim to extraterrestrial land, it makes no mention of individual or corporate ownership. Plots have been put up for sale ever since.

Thus in the 18 months since President Bush's announcement, he has received numerous letters from lunar property owners, which typically read thus:

    "I do worry that the future space station might be built on my lot. So I would like to inform you that I might allow the US government to do so, but only if I am paid for that area. If this should happen, I would be ready to enter into negotiations with the US officials."

UN lawyers say Mr Hope's claim on the Moon is without merit, and no government has yet recognised his claim. That, obviously, also goes for the 3.4m people to whom he has sold lunar plots, and those who have bought from rival companies.

Its surface has 9bn acres
Lunar Embassy has sold nearly 5m worth of plots, with 3.4m owners worldwide
The company claims owners include Carrie Fisher, William Shatner, the Pope, George W Bush and 30 Nasa employees
Mr Hope predicts moon-based colonies within 12 years, and is a key investor in the TransOrbital project, which aims to launch the first private commercial flight to the Moon at the end of the year. The ship will carry a CD detailing Lunar Embassy's ownership rights as the company believes this staking process will stand up under US property law at least.

To this end, he says he has been in negotiations with the US Government. "We are proposing to the USA and any other space-faring country to lease to them a large parcel of land at no expense for a time period of 400 years initially. This would provide them with the legal instrument to proceed with their building without violating the Outer Space Treaty."

His rivals, too, hope to turn lunar property into reality. The Lunar Registry says proceeds from its sales go towards the Kennedy II Project, a private venture to establish a permanent, self-supporting community by the end of the decade.

Caveat Emptor

But agents are under no illusions as to the appeal of lunar ownership - novelty value.

The company also sells Mars plots
And as with any purchase, read the fine print. The Moon Estates website makes clear that owners cannot charge Nasa if they land on their plot.

"The Outer Space Treaty... states that the Moon [is] the heritage of all mankind for the purposes of exploration. So Nasa can do what they like and where they like, as long as they are exploring. But if someone wants to build a house or drill for minerals or water on your property, that is quite a different issue altogether."

But before you think the Moon is a property hotspot, read on: "The Lunar Embassy and MoonEstates.com has never and will never sell a past or planned Nasa landing site on any celestial body."

Not only is Nasa scouting their landing sites, if they do indeed opt to build on the far side of the Moon, as suggested by Professor Pillinger, no-one buys there.

"No one wants the 'dark side' of the Moon which can't be seen from Earth - we only sell on the 'bright side'," a Moon Estates agent says.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It doesn't matter what any Earth treaty says - the people who go to the moon and fence off a bit of it will be the owners. They can establish their own country, their own government and can make their own laws. It's no different from the old West - you have to physically stake your claim (and defend it).
Mal Lansell, Finedon, England

I can't believe the BBC is perpetuating the bad science that the Moon has a dark side. There are some deep craters near the poles that never see sunlight at the bottom. The whole of the rest of the Moon experiences day and night. It has a far side which we never see but the far side IS NOT DARK.
Andrew Warbrick, Inverurie, Scotland

Doesn't English planning law say that if you can prevent an owner from accessing his land for 12 years then technically, you own it. So, all Nasa has to do (if they were an English company) is make sure no-one could fly to the Moon for 12 years after they set up a moon base. Simple.
Richard Wilson, Wigan, UK

As an astrophysics degree student, I can't wait till NASA and ESA get their act together and colaborate on a manned moon base. The benefits to humankind will be immense. The "problem" of sold moon plots, in my opinion, is inconsequential, any base on the moon will be an international scientific colaboration, not a hotel.
Martin Smith, Canterbury

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