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From Amazon to the moon

Billionaire Jeff Bezos unveils concept lunar lander and plans for orbital space colonies in Blue Origin presentation

If the first Space Race in 1950s and 60s was Cold War politics with hostility disguised as exploration, the second Space Race, which we are living through now, currently appears to be a battle of the bank accounts. The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, founder of online retailing behemoth Amazon, yesterday revealed that his plans for growing space venture Blue Origin include an uncrewed landing near the moon’s South Pole by 2024, with a view to setting up permanent colonies. He also spoke of plans to build orbital “space colonies” housed in rotating cylinders with simulated gravity, accommodation and vegetation.

Rendering of the Blue Moon lander. Image: Blue Origin

Blue Origin is already a player in the private space sector, competing with fellow tech billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX and has been developing its vertical takeoff and landing New Shepard spacecraft for some years: it first flew in 2015, and is planned to undertake its first crewed flight this year. New Shepard is a suborbital vehicle, but the company plans to launch a larger vehicle, New Glenn, in the near future (both spacecraft are named after early US astronauts; Bezos has already announced that New Glenn’s successor will be called New Armstrong).

In yesterday’s announcement, details of which were kept confidential prior to the event, with only a cryptic picture of Edwardian explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance surrounded by ice as a “trailer” as a clue to what it might be, Bezos unveiled the design of a lunar lander called Blue Moon which, he said, will be able to take a 6.5 metric tonne payload, initially comprising scientific equipment – and eventually including humans – to the lunar surface by 2024. The Shackleton link turned out to be a clue to the planned landing site: the Shackleton Crater, near the moon’s South Pole. Shackleton is potentially interesting as a landing site because it is believed to house deposits of water ice in its shadowed areas. In 2017 Blue Origin detailed its plans to land at Shackleton in a submission to a Congressional subcommittee on space, although Bezos did not confirm that yesterday.

Blue Moon is a multifunctional, double-decker lander, capable of deploying up to four rovers and launching orbital satellites from its landing site. A future version will include an ascent stage to carry human crew. Bezos indicated that his company has been working on the concept for the past three years, which is why he was so confident that he could meet the 2024 deadline. In March, Vice President Mike Pence tasked NASA with completing a space platform in lunar orbit and a crewed lunar landing by the same year. “It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay,” Bezos said. The water on the moon would be valuable both as a drinking resource for astronauts and as a source of fuel, he added: Blue Moon is hydrogen fuelled.

Blue Moon equipped with ascent stage for crewed missions. Image: Blue Origin

The even more grandiose part of Bezos’ announcement involved Blue Origin’s plans to build space stations based on a concept first proposed by physicist Gerard O’Neill, comprising cylinders that would rotate in orbit in such a way that the centripetal force would simulate gravity on its inner surface. First proposed in 1976 in a book called The High Frontier, O’Neill cylinders will be illuminated by reflected sunlight or a sun-like artificial light and would be able to support plant life. “This is Maui on its best day, all year long,” Bezos enthused. “No rain. No earthquakes. People are going to want to live here.”

A NASA rendering of the interior of an O'Neill cylinder. Image: Rick Guidice, NASA Ames Research Centre via Wikipedia

Space X is currently ahead of Blue Origin, with rockets already reaching orbit and its Dragon capsule regularly resupplying the International Space Station. Its plans for crewed flight suffered a setback when the abort engines of the Crew Dragon test capsule misfired during engine trials in April, destroying the vehicle.

The Engineer plans to revisit Blue Origin and Space X's plans in more detail and go into the engineering challenges in an upcoming issue focusing on space in July, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.