October 17, 2006
Stanford on the Moon? Alums plan an off-planet satellite campus
By Brian D. Lee
Stanford students have studied in Kyoto, Moscow, Oxford and Paris through the Overseas Studies Program, but in 2000 at his 35th class reunion alumnus Steve Durst asked, "What about Stanford on the Moon?" That was the topic of a conference held Oct. 13 attended by alums including Lois Aldrin ('51) and her astronaut-husband, Buzz. Professors Bob Twiggs and Umran Inan spoke along with NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden about achieving a Stanford presence on the moon by 2015.
While a Russian firm is interested in mining the moon's helium-3 for thermonuclear reactors, and China has plans to walk on the moon by 2024, the Bush administration has set the objective to establish a lunar base for future missions to Mars by 2030.
Stanford can contribute to the reviving interest in lunar exploration through basic space programs that will help educate the next generation of scientists, according to a statement on the Stanford on the Moon website, http://www.spaceagepub.com/SOM/index.htm, managed by Durst, a publisher of space industry newsletters.
"While we do not anticipate a separate human mission by the university in the near term, we do hope for involvement in a human mission through the initiative," Durst said in an e-mail interview after the conference. Durst supported a human presence, possibly through "timesharing" an astronaut with another organization.
With sufficient funds, researchers could send a crew of student-made satellites to the moon by 2010, said Twiggs, a consulting professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Students in Twiggs' courses already have constructed and launched into space small self-sufficient satellites the size of tissue boxes. The 4-inch cube-shaped satellites, nicknamed "CubeSats," include solar panels along with sensors to measure radiation, magnetic fields and gravity. Twiggs helped establish a global CubeSat community, providing aspiring aerospace engineers from Japan to Romania the chance to manufacture and send the devices into space for a cost of roughly $65,000.
While building satellites can be cheap, the cost of rocketing them from Earth to the moon is expensive, prompting the alums to discuss how to fundraise the launch cost. NASA's Worden spoke of his hopes to strengthen connections with the university and how the space agency's future will rely heavily on private-public partnerships. Worden noted that unmanned space missions typically range from $100 million to $700 million and praised Twiggs' inexpensive proposal, saying, "Bob, we worship you!"
Twiggs gave Aeronautics and Astronautics graduate students the opportunity to assess the feasibility of the moon project as part of Engineering 235, Space Systems Engineering, through the Stanford Space Systems Development Laboratory. Their report, titled "Stanford Lunar Analysis Mission," found the simplest and most direct plan would entail a lunar fly-by with the CubeSats sending back signals that could be picked up by Stanford's "Dish" radio telescope.
Electrical engineering Professor Inan, who studies electrical discharges in the atmosphere, spoke about his interest in collaborating with Twiggs. Inan would like to equip the satellites with devices capable of measuring radiation belts between Earth and the moon.
Twiggs suggested a lunar fly-by mission could include the participation of elementary school students by giving them a hands-on chance to build what he called "Moon Beams." Moon Beams, named for beaming messages from the moon, are simple thermometer probes the size of 9-volt batteries that children can construct in a classroom. Each Moon Beam would have its own unique Morse code, and a large number of the probes could travel with the satellites. Upon reaching the moon, the released squad of Moon Beams could send a chorus of messages the children could detect on a field trip to the Dish. The project could provide great publicity for the university, Twiggs said, especially if the satellites broadcast "Beat Cal" or the Stanford fight song.
Brian D. Lee is a science writing intern with the Stanford News Service.
Science writing intern Brian D. Lee wrote this release. A photo illustration (slugged "moonnasa.gif") is available on the web at http://newsphotos.stanford.edu/.