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Where we’re going, we WILL need roads
Paving the Moon won’t be easy, but it’s possible… but we should be careful how we proceed. Also: Sunrise over an extremely large telescope.
October 23, 2023 Issue #633
Space is big. That’s why we call it “space”
As we start exploring the Moon with actual people, how will they get around? Walking limits you to sticking close to the base, so having a rover or other type of powered transport is going to be necessary. Thing is, the surface of the Moon is a mess. Rocks, boulders, dips, mounds, and more make driving a hazard. Worse, as you drive over the regolith (the dusty material covering everything that’s made up of fine spiky particles of eroded lunar rock) it sprays up, getting into equipment and creating a health hazard (it’s nasty stuff and turns into a concrete-like material when breathed in).
What we need are roads.
But how do you pave something on the Moon?
Engineers may have found a way. Using a material that mimics lunar dust, they fired lasers to melt the material and form a fairly strong material. This process can be replicated using focused sunlight, which is not a big deal to get on the Moon (you need a big lens, but a Fresnal lens should do the trick).
They formed the regolith into a trefoil-like pattern, which can then be interlocked over and again to create something similar to a cobblestone surface [link to paper]. Pretty clever. This will help flatten the surface and prevent the dust from getting into everything.
I’m of two minds about this.
This would be a huge benefit to exploration and just living on the Moon, obviously. But it’s also hard not to think about the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” — They paved paradise to put up a parking lot — and I’m concerned about the impact on the Moon of our fooling around up there. I know, it’s not like there are plants and animals there, but it’s still a pristine place with a unique environment. Going there and retooling it into the place we want it to be is something we should be very careful about. That sort of colonial attitude has always — always — led to problems here on Earth.
Yes, again, there’s no life there to affect… except our own. Taking a step back and rethinking attitudes and procedures before taking a big leap is usually a pretty good idea, making sure a colossal and potentially irreversible mistake isn’t about to be made (ask Australians about cane toads, or any former British colony about this mindset). We’ll be taking all our old biases along with us as we head out into the solar system, and we really need to make sure we’re doing it in a way that we won’t regret down the road. Exploring space is not a short-term endeavor. If we do it, we need to be aware that it’s something we’ll be doing for centuries, and what we do now lays the foundation — in this case quite literally — for that future.
Pic o’ the Letter
A cool or lovely or mind-bending astronomical image/video with a description so you can grok it
The European Southern Observatory is constructing an immense telescope in the Chilean Atacama Desert, called — sigh — the Extremely Large Telescope, or ELT. The project is massive, just so ridiculously huge. I wrote about it before, showing how vast the construction site is.
That was an aerial view, but ESO published another view of this work in progress, and it’s a stunner:
Whoa. That’s the rising Sun seen behind the as-yet-unfinished dome, complete with sunspots. It was taken on August 29, 2023, from the Very Large Telescope (sense a naming pattern here?) 23 kilometers away. This had to be planned and timed just right; the Sun moves through its own diameter every two minutes, and from that distance the site is about the same apparent size as the Sun. Being off by a few days or getting your position wrong for the camera means missing the shot.
A different photographer took a time lapse video the morning before, and it’s equally jaw-dropping:
And did you notice something odd about it? The Sun rises “the wrong way”! In the northern hemisphere the Sun rises more or less in the east, moving to the south before setting in the west. That means it moves left to right as you face east at sunrise.
In the southern hemisphere, it moves from east to north to west, so it moves to the left as you face east at sunrise. To my northern eyes it looks backwards.
In quite a few TV shows and movies I see the Sun rising backwards given the setting of the movie. That’s because it’s not easy to calculate exactly where the Sun will rise when using a telephoto lens, but you have plenty of time to set a shot up in the afternoon to catch sunset. So they record the Sun setting, then reverse it in the show to make it look like it’s rising… but it’s moving the wrong way (assuming the show is set north of the equator). It’s fun to catch that.
The ELT structure is planned for completion in 2026, with the telescope itself getting its first images in 2028. That’ll be something. I can’t wait.
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