The temperature on the surface of the Moon varies enormously. During the day it rises to 130 degrees and at night it drops to almost minus 160 degrees. There is no atmosphere here and the cosmic radiation coming from the universe is radioactive. In addition, you have to contend with very fine moon dust which—in much the same way as volcanic ash—finds its way into everything.
However, the inhospitable conditions are not deterring the world’s space nations from dreaming of building habitable bases for people on the Moon. Nor is it deterring the architectural firm SAGA Space Architects. Last year, the two architects Karl-Johan Sørensen and Sebastian Aristotelis Frederiksen tested their newly developed and architect-designed habitat in the area surrounding a disused titanium mine in North Greenland. This was done with the help of DTU Space.
The ambition was to investigate how the extreme moon-like environments affected their mental and physical well-being—a project that differs from other similar projects that typically explore how to survive in space.
“Where all other space missions focus on making electronics, power, water, and oxygen supply work, we have tried to create an environment where many people will be able to thrive in space over a longer period of time,” says Sebastian.
“If you really want a permanent civilization outside of Earth, it’s not just about meeting people’s basic needs such as food, water, and oxygen. It’s also about creating joie de vivre, psychological well-being, and mental surplus.”
A wild idea
For Sebastian and Karl-Johan, the idea of building inhabited environments in outer space began when they studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture. In 2018, they founded SAGA Space Architects in Copenhagen and won the international competition ‘Dandelion Shelter'. Here they designed a primitive Mars shelter inspired by the seeds of a dandelion, while the surface was based on the idea of harvesting static electricity from dust and sandstorms on Mars. They later spent two months at the International Space University summer school, where together with engineering students they were inspired by presentations from space agencies from the United States, Japan, and Israel. In 2020, they set out to build and test their own lunar LUNARK habitat in Greenland.
Before leaving, however, they needed help to learn more about outer space and Greenland. On the one hand, they needed to know how to develop a prototype moon habitat that could be scaled up and function in space—and on the other, they needed to know more about Greenland’s climatic conditions and the problems of handling bears, logistics, transport, and rescue etc. to stay alive in the harsh environment.
Through mutual friends, they got in touch with Per Lundahl Thomsen, Chief Consultant at DTU Space. He was able to draw on his experience from projects such as Denmark’s large space mission Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor which investigates energy discharges from lightning and storms in space, as well as satellite missions such as the Ørsted satellite that measured Earth’s magnetic field. Per reached out to other researchers from DTU Space who monitor climate change in the Arctic, and over time the advice from DTU was extended to include organization, risk analysis, and permits to pass through Thule Air Base.
“When Sebastian called and said SAGA Space Architects were going to build a habitat in space, I thought: is that really a good idea? It was a wild idea, almost a crazy challenge, but it’s also often what it takes to create an absolutely fantastic project,” says Per.
“Normally, my role is to be a system engineer and project manager, and the one who makes things gel. I thought it might be an idea to help on that front and assist with prioritization. When—like Sebastian and Karl-Johan—you have lofty ambitions, you get to a point where you have to prioritize to make things finally come together. And it can be difficult when you have no basis for comparison.”
Helicopter at full moon
Some of the biggest decisions that Per and his colleagues helped the architects with concerned logistics, planning, and project execution.
First of all, they had to find a place on Earth similar to the Moon. The choice fell on North Greenland near Thule Air Base, where they were able to replicate the conditions for measuring the real psychological stress astronauts are exposed to. It is cold here, and a person cannot remain outside the habitat for very long. The light situation is reminiscent of the constant sunlight at the Moon’s south pole. While on the Moon there are 14 days of darkness followed by 14 days of light, the architects experienced 30 days when the Sun was only slightly visible, and then 30 days when they did not see the Sun at all.
Finally, there is a monotonous ice and rocky landscape which in many ways resembles the barren surface of the Moon. The last factor that makes Greenland ideal is that it is totally isolated. In fact, the two architects were so far away from civilization that they could only be brought home by helicopter when the weather was occasionally calm and there was light from either the Sun or the Moon.
But one of the things that really posed a challenge was the structure of the habitat. Here, the architects drew inspiration from the Japanese paper folding art, origami. The shell, which consists of carbon fibre panels and folds into a container, expands by 560 per cent when opened. This also makes the method ideal for being transported aboard a rocket. In an extra twist, the habitat was designed so robustly that it could also withstand polar bears and even muskox rubbing up against it.
Habitat with technologies
The habitat was filled with technologies that in the future can promote our well-being in space. One of the technologies was a so-called Circadian Light System consisting of five LED panels which the architects place around the habitat. Here, they simulated a normal circadian rhythm that meant they experienced dusk, sunrise, daylight, sunset, dusk, and night in the habitat—even though it was dark outside. The technology is currently being analysed by a team of psychologists. But in Sebastian’s view, the results are compelling.
“Like all organisms on Earth, humans have a fine-tuned 24-hour circadian rhythm that controls a lot of processes in the body such as sleep, body temperature, and hormone production. If the circadian rhythm is disturbed, it can have serious health consequences,” Sebastian explains.
“The light panels gave us different light intensities and spectra of light. During the day we increased the cold bluish light that promotes the production of cortisol—the substance that boosts activity and concentration. Towards evening, the cold light was replaced by a warm yellowish light, which caused the body’s level of melatonin to rise. It made us feel tired.”
Another technology that the architects tested was how to apply mental hygiene with the help of virtual reality. Behind the pilot project are DTU Space and Skejby Hospital, which is testing and documenting whether the technology can be used by astronauts on longer missions in space. The first reactions from Greenland show that Sebastian and Karl-Johan experienced an almost therapeutic effect by watching three different nature videos every day.
Ordinary people in space
The hope is that the preliminary results from LUNARK can help humans settle on the Moon. In time, it will not only be specially trained astronauts who are going into space, but also ordinary people.
LUNARK is not the only initiative. Work is already under way to make the Moon the first stop for missions further into space from 2024. One of the initiatives comes from NASA, which has an ambition to develop more permanent homes on the Moon. This will be done with the help of, among others, the Danish architectural firm BIG. Russia and China have also revealed a major collaboration to build on a new international space station on the Moon.
“We’re seeing more and more long-term missions to the Moon, and eventually to Mars. The collaboration with SAGA Space Architects is therefore a welcome opportunity for DTU Space to gain experience with this type of project, so that in future DTU can hopefully contribute to these exciting missions,” says Per.
But why are we even travelling into space? If you ask Per, his reply is that exploration is a fundamental aspect of human nature:
“Exploration drives our daily lives, our technology, and all of evolution. If you want answers to life’s big questions, you have to grapple with some challenges to get answers about where we’re coming from and where we’re going.”