Why you should care
The moon race is on, and Europe is turning to this unit for new ideas.
It’s like the surface of our moon is covered in talcum powder. Everywhere you go, there’s regolith, a fine, powdery substance weathered by billions of years of exposure to everything from solar winds to micro-meteorites. Yet that powder didn’t see Aidan Cowley’s microwave oven coming. “And out come nuggets of melted regolith,” says Cowley, “which we might use to build roads, landing pads or even bricks for habitats on the moon.”
The 37-year-old Irishman is a science adviser at the European Space Agency (ESA), leading a peculiar unit called Spaceship EAC, dedicated to experiments like microwaving lunar dust. Around 15 early-career researchers and students work on speculative technologies that can help humans live on the moon — in essence, building their own moon base. What makes them different is a focus on new, crazy ideas rather than short-term projects. “We’re a brainstorming group, slash think tank, slash skunk works,” says Cowley.
And their work is needed now more than ever. As the world last year marked a half-century since man first set foot on the moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would be returning humans to the moon by 2024, four years ahead of the prior schedule. Following that initial touchdown, the U.S. — together with partners like Japan, Canada and the European Union — intends to establish a more permanent base. ESA also participates in this project, called the Artemis program. Jan Wörner, director general of the ESA, has repeatedly hammered the importance of building a “moon village.”
Many of these problems that seem impossible can be approachable.
So to support this effort, Spaceship EAC is heartily experimenting from its base in Cologne, Germany. They are thinking about space mining, recycling materials and energy, the focus of Italian team member Andrea Casini’s research. “We cannot do anything without energy,” says Casini, 30. “So we’re now building a replica of a future energy system to be used on the moon that is composed of solar panels, fuel cells, batteries and electrolyzers. The different elements should work together as a closed system for producing and storing energy.”
But because of harsh lunar conditions, building such a set-up is harder than it sounds. Nights can last for weeks in certain areas, and temperatures can dive below minus 100 degrees Celsius. “Of course the moon also doesn’t have an atmosphere,” adds Casini. “So equipment is exposed to high degrees of radiation, extreme temperatures and vacuum, which can eventually lead to systems failure.”
Preparing for this unforgiving environment, Cowley points out, can lead to projects that will find their way back to Earth. “We often work with sustainable technologies and try to maintain closed, circular loops with no waste,” says Cowley, “which is also key for sustainability on Earth.”
Cowley’s career itself has taken a few loops. “I do wonder how I ended up here quite a bit myself,” he laughs. Cowley grew up in County Cork in Ireland, and his primary degree is in computer science from Dublin City University. Then he went on and got a Ph.D. in materials science after one of his teachers inspired him. He ended up at ESA studying regolith as a material to 3D-print. “This interdisciplinary skill set has helped me a lot over the years,” he says. The rest of his research unit is the same way: You can find everyone from aerospace engineers to architects.
And within that structure, says Casini, is “a flat hierarchy. If you have a good idea, it doesn’t matter if you’re the boss or just the latest student to join the team. We’re gonna work together to start up an experiment.”
The moon is the focus for now, but Cowley’s inspiration comes from a bit further away. He mentions the Mars trilogy, a science-fiction series by American writer Kim Stanley Robinson about the colonization of Mars, and the resulting political upheaval and revolution on the red planet. “It goes from people arriving on the planet, to a massive terraforming operation and a sustainable atmosphere,” says Cowley, recalling how he loved reading the books when he was younger. “It showed to me that many of these problems that seem impossible can be approachable.”
While the moon’s harsh environment presents an enormous challenge, Robinson’s books hint at the more difficult troubles ahead for Cowley’s team. “The biggest risk for every undertaking in space is politics,” says Paul van Susante, an assistant professor at Michigan Tech University, who studies how to build and mine on the moon. “Space exploration is done by national space agencies, which means there is a strong relation between politics and space.”
That means the NASA timetable relies on the whims of the Trump administration — or the next U.S. president. At the same time, a range of practical questions remain, like what a moon base would actually be used for.
Nevertheless, Cowley is hopeful that the current moon race will push us all forward. “It will be a big, collaborative effort,” he says. “It’s the brains of a generation that are activated by these things and who push it forward. And if we can also use that energy to make life on our own planet more sustainable, then that’s mission accomplished.”