The United States is exploring a railway to the moon. There’s a good reason for this.

In 1869, America’s first transcontinental railroad, built by driving spikes into the tracks, transformed the country. Maybe the same thing will happen on the moon.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an ambitious federal innovation agency, has begun working with more than a dozen companies to develop potential future lunar technologies, including a lunar rail. It’s called the Lunar Architecture Capability Study Ten Years (LunA-10), and its mission is to find technologies that can contribute to a self-sustaining lunar economy. This is a momentous moment; a new space race has begun.

This is an attempt to avoid Go it alone Different countries and industries strive to communicate, travel and do business on the moon. The NASA Apollo missions of more than 50 years ago were a remarkable marvel of exploration and engineering, but the billions of dollars spent never resulted in growth or a lasting presence on the moon.

“One of the criticisms of the Apollo program is that we put in all this effort and then it was over,” Michael Nayak, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, told Mashable.

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Why landing a spacecraft on the moon remains so challenging

Now, as NASA, space agencies and companies around the world return to the moon with robotic spacecraft, Nayak sees a future where progress must be made. It might mine helium-3 (an extremely rare resource on Earth that can be used for medical imaging, computing, and even energy), collect water ice to make rocket fuel for deep space missions, and more.

“How do we make it valuable for life on Earth?” emphasizes Nayak, a former space shuttle engineer and NASA planetary scientist responsible for LunA-10.

The project is called LunA-10 because it focuses on what lunar technology will actually look like 10 years after NASA’s Artemis III mission, in which astronauts will land on the moon’s coveted south pole, where planetary scientists suspect water ice and other substances. Resources are hidden in dark, shadowy craters. As of March 2024, NASA expects astronauts to set foot on the moon by late 2026.

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“How do we make it valuable for life on Earth?”

DARPA is exploring six areas needed for future lunar development: power generation; communications and navigation; construction and robotics (robots could build roads and infrastructure in the near future); mining resources; transportation; and market research — to determine which ones Industry is feasible on the moon.

The rockets and spacecraft that carried astronauts to the moon more than half a century ago no longer exist. Everything about traveling to the moon and establishing a lunar presence will be new. “It’s just a blank slate,” Nayak said. Other concept ideas include towering lighthouses that could illuminate dark, resource-rich craters and provide communications on the barren lunar surface.

DARPA recently selected aerospace and defense giant Northrup Grumman to create a rail concept. “The envisioned lunar rail network could transport people, supplies, and resources on the lunar surface for commercial enterprises, contributing to the space economy of the United States and international partners,” the company wrote. Their goal is to develop a railroad that would limit human activity on the lunar surface. A footprint on the lunar surface that is still essentially in pristine condition, and designing a system that anyone can ride on or load with cargo (such as standardized, lunar-friendly equipment that can withstand huge temperature swings).

The idea of ​​astronauts working in the coveted South Pole Craters of the Moon.

The idea of ​​astronauts working in the coveted South Pole Craters of the Moon.
Image source: NASA

Transportation is a key part of any future moon landing plans. When a large rocket (perhaps SpaceX’s Starship) carries tons of cargo to the moon, those supplies (building materials, food, or mining equipment) cannot sit idle. Life on the moon would be expensive. “Every minute it sits there it’s losing revenue,” Nayak stressed.

“This railroad is America’s first technology corridor.”

Ultimately, the LunA-10 project will take a closer look at different lunar concepts developed in 2024, such as a lunar railway or power plant. Some technologies will be approved—meaning DARPA will help accelerate the development of these concepts—and some won’t. We hope to move from the current era of lunar exploration into a foundational era in which countries and industries try to lay the groundwork for potential lunar exploration, such as mining projects. If all goes according to plan, these successful efforts will usher in the industrial age, with real goods and services being manufactured or provided on our natural satellite approximately 238,855 miles away. For example, the moon could become a fuel depot for deeper space missions, to the scientifically fascinating Mars or resource-rich asteroids.

More than 150 years ago, the transcontinental railroad began an economic transformation. “Just as it opened the West Coast and Asian markets to the East, it also brought the products of Eastern industry to a growing population outside Mississippi,” the Public Broadcasting Service explained. “The railroads ensured a boom in production as industry exploited the vast resources of the Midwestern continent for production. The railroad was America’s first technology corridor.”

A lunar world designed to facilitate transportation, communication and progress could allow today’s nascent ideas to one day bloom beyond Earth. Who knows what the next lunar decades will bring in the 2040s and beyond?

“Now someone has an idea in their head that this is going to be the next big thing.” Nayak said.

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