Take Two for November 13, 2012

NASA may open deep space station on far side of the moon

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The moon is illuminated as the sun rises over the Somerset countryside on November 6, 2012 in Glastonbury, England.

NASA may be planning to build a base just outside the moon's orbit.

The deep space outpost would be the furthest humans have ever travelled from Earth, and it would serve as a launch pad for manned missions to asteroids and even Mars.

Here with more is KPCC's Sanden Totten.

Tell us about this moon base. What do we know about it?

"I should start by saying, this isn't a done deal. NASA isn't confirming or denying the plan. But we do know they are considering a bunch of different missions right now. The Orlando Sentinel got a hold of some of these plans and that's where the concept of this 'space base' came from. So it's far from a done deal, but the science behind it is very interesting and it's worth explaining."

So give us the gist of the plan as of now.

"Basically, it would be a manned-station 277,000 miles from Earth. Which is much farther than the International Space station; that's only 200 or so miles above Earth. They'd build it by sending up parts on a new rocket that NASA is  already working on. Now, if you don't know about this rocket, it's called the Space Launch System or SLS. NASA is building it to replace the Space shuttle program. It's what's known as a heavy lifter - basically it's a really powerful rocket with a lot of cargo space. The SLS rocket should be ready by 2017 and, if this base gets the green light, you could see construction a few years after that."

The plan is for a base orbiting the moon. Why not just build it on the moon?

"For a number of reasons. First, landing anywhere in space is always tricky. You need specialized landing gear, extra fuel, all that adds to the weight and complexity of a vehicle. Plus, if you ever want to leave the base you need a whole other launching system. The place they picked isn't just some random spot in space either. It's just beyond the moon's far side in something called a Lagrangian point. A really strategic spot in space."

Lagrangian point, what is that?

"Imagine two big magnets, both pulling on a metal screw in different directions. If you place the screw just right, the pull of the magnets could suspend the screw in space. Lagrangian points are sort of like that, but not quite. They are a balance point, but rather than magnetic forces, Lagrangian points are created by the gravity of a large body, like the Earth or the Moon or Sun. Since the Earth and Moon are in orbit, these points move too. But once you've set up shop in a Lagrangian point, your base would essentially be parked in space; you won't have to continually adjust to keep it from being pulled into a planet. I spoke with Dr. Louis Friedman, former mission planner with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and director emeritus of the Planetary Society. He said these spots are perfect stepping stones for deep space travel."

'Space age is, as I said, 50 years. We've never gone beyond the moon. It's time to move out into the solar system. The first step would be a Lagrangian point just beyond the Moon, and then move out maybe to the Sun/Earth Lagrangian Points. These are points where we can do practical missions but they become milestones to go out into the solar system," said Friedman.

"Dr Friedman told me scientists have studied these Lagrange points for decades and the idea of putting a base in one has been around for a long time."

All this sounds incredibly expensive…Any idea what all this will cost?

"I reached out to NASA for a comment - they didn't reply. And since this proposal is still only speculation at this point - it's impossible to put a price tag on it. But we do know the International Space Station cost 100 billion dollars to get going. This could cost even more given how far out it is. There's also talk about NASA possible re-purposing spare parts from the International Space Station - which could cut costs a little bit. But until there is an official announcement - we won't know for sure."


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