Sunday, February 29, 2004


Sorry for the interruption over the weekend: I've been moving house, and we don't have Internet access at our new place yet. By the way, if I haven't told you my new address yet and you think I should have, e-mail me.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Powering a moon base

Yesterday I said I'd start talking about problems with lunar colonisation, and their possible solutions. To start at a completely arbitrary point, how do we power our hypothetical moonbase? Without power, your life support system goes down and you're dead. So quite an important problem, then.

Interestingly, despite quite a lot of Googling last night, I couldn't really find any good suggestions of how to solve this particular issue - lots of complaining about the problem, but no coherent thought about possible solutions.

The primary power source envisaged for a Moon base is solar energy from photovoltaic cells. The Moon doesn't have an atmosphere to get in the way of the Sun's light, so the intensity of the light is pretty much constant for the whole of the lunar day, and more intense than even direct sunlight on Earth. Big advantages for solar power. But then you have to take into account the length of the lunar day.

A lunar day is the same length as a Earth month: 14 Earth days of light, followed by 14 Earth days of darkness. If your base relies solely on solar power, you're in big trouble. This means that if you want to use solar power, you need to couple it with some form of energy storage.

Enough batteries to heat and light a base for a fortnight will weigh tonnes. So batteries aren't much good unless you have a vast launch budget. Neither are flywheels a good prospect: over the course of two weeks, a lot of energy will be lost to friction. Not to mention that a flywheel big enough to store that kind of energy will also weigh tonnes. The most promising technique at the moment seems to be fuel cells: devices that generate electricity directly from a chemical reaction. These would be especially good if they could be made to run in reverse, because they could then be used in a similar fashion to batteries. Even better would be if the fuel from the base crews landing/ascent module was the same as the fuel for the fuel cells: it would considerably simplify storing the fuel. Only one set of tanks needed!

You can tell that my favourite solution for solar power is PV cells with fuel cells. But the ideal solution would be a small nuclear reactor. Although it would weigh a lot, it would be able to power a much larger base than the equivalent mass of PV cells and fuel cells, and would therefore be a much more efficient use of launch capacity. Unfortunately, the political climate is such that you'd never get permission to launch a nuclear reactor for fear of what would happen if something went wrong.

So the base has power, but what form would the base take?

References:* (numerous threads)* (numerous threads)

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Moving hosting!

I've finally got my act together, and I'm in the process of moving my website to The Web Union. In the process, I've managed to find a very, very good online FTP client that's free to use - so I thought I'd share the joy.

Lava tubes: summary

So, to summarise what I've been writing over the last week:

  1. Lava tubes are natural tunnels formed by flowing lava.
  2. In some places, they have collapsed to form rilles.
  3. On the Moon they are roughly an order of magnitude larger than their equivalents on Earth.
  4. They offer considerable protection for a manned base from a variety of environmental dangers.
  5. Lava tubes would provide an ideal location for a the base for a mission lasting longer than a couple of days.
  6. Satellite photography can be used to look for intact lava tubes indirectly by looking for discontinuities in rilles.
  7. GPR can see lava tubes directly, but has serious problems associated.
  8. Geophones can generate precise data on lava tubes, but require a network of sensors and a number of shock waves in different places.
  9. "EMP thumpers" combine the advantages of geophones and GPR, but is still under development as a technique.
Tomorrow I will begin to discuss problems (and their possible solutions) associated with staying on the Moon for any length of time.

By the way, a disclaimer: writing these articles is part of a learning process for me. I don't suggest that they're even factually correct (although I do my best). If you find them useful, then great! And if you find any problems with them please let me know.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Lava tubes, seismic survey and EMR

Yesterday I outlined the ground-penetrating radar technique for finding lava tubes on the Moon. Another two methods have been suggested [1], and I will briefly describe them.

Firstly, seismic survey. This involves deploying a network of seismic sensors (geophones) in the area you wish to search for lava tubes; essentially, microphones embedded in the ground. Then you send shock waves through the ground, like a miniature earthquake. You can generate the vibrations either by explosive charges, or by impacts (i.e. crashing something into the ground from orbit).

Although seismic survey provides excellent resolution and good penetration of the surface, there are problems: you have to non-destructively land your sensors and then embed them. That limits you to a small area. If you're using explosives, you need to set them up as well, or if you're chucking stuff from orbit you need to have some sort of accurate delivery system. To generate good data, you need to have lots of sensors and lots of shock waves from different places. I think that this technique would be good for mapping an area you've already identified as interesting.

The final method is still theoretical, and combines the ideas of GPR and seismic survey. You lob devices from orbit - devices that, when they hit the Moon's surface, behave a bit like EMP bombs, converting their kinetic energy into a very powerful radar pulse. The radar pulse bounces off features in the Moon - such as lava tubes - and the reflections are detected by a very long baseline array of receivers, and converted into 3D geographical data.


[1] D. Stephenson et al., 'lunar resources/lava tubes',, 22-01-1996

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Our Father

From This was much too hilarious not to put up on here!

<Firefly> Time for my prayers:
<Firefly> Our Father, who 0wnz heaven, j00 r0ck!
<Firefly> May all 0ur base someday be belong to you!
<Firefly> May j00 0wn earth just like j00 0wn heaven.
<Firefly> Give us this day our warez, mp3z, and pr0n through a phat pipe.
<Firefly> And cut us some slack when we act like n00b lamerz, just as we teach n00bz when they act lame on us.
<Firefly> Please don't give us root access on some poor d00d'z box when we're too pissed off to think about what's right and wrong, and if you could keep the fbi off our backs, we'd appreciate it.
<Firefly> For j00 0wn r00t on all our b0x3s 4ever and ever, 4m3n.

Lava tubes and surface-penetrating radar

Yesterday I discussed satellite photography. As I mentioned, there are problems with this technique, but there are others that might do the job just as well.

Consider a very simplified radar: you send out a pulse of radio waves, and you wait for reflections to come back. The longer the reflection takes, the farther away the thing that's reflecting.

During the Cold War, the US satellite reconnaisance researchers developed radar into a way to find concealed underground missile silos, and then as a demonstration published images of the network of underground rivers beneath the Nile delta, if I remember correctly. This worked by getting reflections back off features progressively deeper into the ground.

So this could work for looking for lava tubes. Mount a big radar on a Moon-orbiting satellite, and then set it looking at the surface of the Moon. Most of the time it'll get one reflection back, from the surface, but when it encounters a lava tube it'll get another reflection back from the tube roof, and then a third from the tube floor. This proposed mission would in fact provide two useful sets of data: a three-dimensional map of the Moons surface, which could be useful in mission-planning or geological studies, and then lava tube positions as a by-product.

There are naturally a couple of problems to overcome with this technique: on a basic level, resolution, penetration, and signal to noise ratio [1]. Resolution is very important, as to find the sorts of lava tubes we're interested in we need a 10 m resolution, or even finer. Penetration is also important, as we want to find lava tubes even quite deep down, and a low signal to noise ration is vital if we want to extract any useful data at all! To get a high resolution, you need a high frequency, but increasing the frequency of the radar signal reduced the penetrating power. It's a thorny issue. Additionally, to get a 10 m resolution you'd need to know the position of the spacecraft to within 10 m.

Even with those problems, this seems to me to be the most economical way of getting the sort of data that would be useful for finding the sort of lava tubes suitable for locating a Moon base in.

So what are the last two methods?


[1] T.L. Billings, 'Re: lunar resources/lava tubes',, 25-01-1996

Monday, February 23, 2004

Lava tubes and satellite photography

So, after yesterday's interlude, I will address the problem of how to find lava tubes on the Moon.

There are several techniques available to use. The first one I will consider is satellite photography.

Initially this may seem more than a little silly: how can (visible spectrum) photographs show lava tubes, when they're underground? Fortunately, we can use indirect methods to find lava tubes. If you recall, last Thursday I explained that rima are collapsed lava tubes, and this fact can be used to find intact lava tubes: all you need to do is look for gaps, or more precisely discontinuities, in a visible rille.

A detailed study was done by Coombs and Hawke [1] of imagery from the Apollo missions and the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft, which turned up more than ninety possible lava tubes. An analysis of the data from the 1994 Clementine mission has yet to be carried out [2]. Which brings us neatly to another problem with visible spectrum photography.

The easiest way to pick out rima is by the shadows of their walls - nice dark lines on a light background. Unfortunately, the Clementine mission was geared toward providing good data for geochemical data, and so they arranged to have all its photos taken at local noon - when the shadows are at their least significant. This is a pretty annoying obstacle to using Clementine data to find lava tubes. That and the rather low resolution.

But there are of course ways to look for lava tubes other than satellite photos.


[1] Coombs, C.R., and B.R. Hawke, 'A Search for Intact Lava Tubes on the Moon: Possible Lunar Base Habitats', in The Second Conference on Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century (W.W.Mendell, Ed.), NASA CP-3166, Vol. I, p. 219, 1992.

[2] T.L. Billings, 'Lunar Lava Tubes via Clementine',, 17-02-2004


T.L. Billings, Oregon L-5 Society Portland Chapter

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Lava tube sizes

Yesterday I brought you to the conclusion that lava tubes look like good locations for manned lunar bases. But before I tackle the thorny problem of finding lava tubes in the first place, I feel I ought to give some idea of scale of these lava tubes. I said that you could put a village down inside the largest ones. This was probably an exaggeration, although there's at least one rille 3 km wide. Here's some example data[1]:

A small lava tube might be 20 m under ground, 20 m across and 15 m high.

A large tube might be 500 m under ground, 300 m across and 100 m high. So pretty large.

A good rule of thumb is that lunar lava tubes grow to about 10 times the size of their Terran equivalents.

Another aside: in Latin, the plural of rille is rima, and lava tubes are ducta. So if I start babbling about rima and ducta, you know what I'm on about.

Anyway, back to the point: how do we go about finding intact lava tubes?


[1] Artemis Project: Lunar Lava Tube Dimensions

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Other lava tube advantages

Yesterday we saw how lava tubes would act as a radiation shelter for astronauts on the moon. There are, however, several other potential advantages in putting a base in a lava tube[1].

Firstly, protection from meteoroids. The moon is constantly pounded by meteors weighing tiny fractions of a gram (we call them micrometeors), as well as meteor showers of larger meteors now and again. Although the micrometeorites are an unfortunate annoyance and can be compensated for by building equipment slightly bulkier than ideal, the larger meteor showers would be a serious danger to an exposed base. Placing a base inside a lava tube would protect it from meteor showers, thus making anti-meteor armour less of a necessity, and the tube would also provide a shelter for delicate equipment that would be easily damaged by meteors.

Second are thermal considerations. The lunar surface varies from ≅100 K in the nighttime to ≅400 K in the day, which means that thermal regulation of a base in order to keep it comfortable for humans could be a bit of a nightmare. If a base is placed in a lava tube, protection from heat is no longer a problem - all you need to do would is try your utmost to keep heat in, and we have experience of dealing with that kind of problem from polar research bases.

Finally is the problem of lunar dust. Formed from lunar rock by millions of years of bombardment by meteors, lunar dust is a serious headache. It's a very fine powder that gets into everything, clogging up motors, covering solar panels and shorting out electronics. But because lava tube interiors have been protected from meteors, we expect them to be relative dust free. Of course, by the time we've been walking and driving in and out for a couple of weeks it won't be.

So we've established that putting a lunar base inside a lava tube would be a good idea. So how do we go about finding a good site?


[1] Moon Miners' Manifesto: 12 Questions About Lunar Lava Tubes

Friday, February 20, 2004

All singing, all dancing, totally electric

(I think) I have managed to iron out all the remaining issues with my website. That includes a brand new design for my weblog! It's quite a bit more lightweight, and has the additional advantage that it won't need to be updated every time my main website's design is updated.

The NEWTS website is now an exercise in geekery. I run NEWTS (a PHP application) over the source tree. It invokes Ant (a Java application), which in turn invokes Docutils (a Python application). But it does what it's meant to do just about perfectly, which is to check out the NEWTS sources from CVS, build a CVS snapshot, build the documentation, and build all that into the website.

If you see any problems with my website (before you point it out, yes, I know MSIE has a broken CSS implementation) scream. I will be.

Can of worms

Yep, I've unwittingly broken my website again. I'll see if I can fix it later today.

Lava tubes and radiation shielding

Yesterday I described lava tubes, and the current evidence for their existence. But why are lava tubes so interesting for engineers investigating the possibility of a manned, long-term lunar base?

The reason is safety - principally with regard to radiation exposure, but other factors come into it as well.

Hazardous radiation in space in the inner solar system divides into two main categories: galactic cosmic rays (GCR) and solar particle events, but for our purposes we can summarize them as high energy particles and low energy particles. On Earth we are protected from the radiation by the Van Allen belts (part of the Earths magnetic field), which trap most of the radiation before it gets to us. We see the interaction between the magnetic field and the particles as the Northern Lights. That's why the Van Allen belts are particularly extensive when there's a solar flare, for instance. But the Moon has no magnetic field, and not even an atmosphere to shield astronauts from radiation. If there was a solar flare that hit the Earth-Moon system, any astronauts on the Moons surface would most likely receive a lethal radiation dose.

Using data from samples brought back from the Moon on the Apollo missions, detailed studies have shown that placing a base in a lava tube with 6 metres of lunar rock and regolith above it would filter out almost all the high energy particles. Less than a metre's depth would shield the base from the effects of a solar flare (De Angelis et al. [1])

So putting the base inside a lava tube would mean that the lunar base would be cheaper to set up, because it would not be necessary to take heavy and bulky radiation shielding to the moon. It would also mean that astronauts on the Moon would be able to continue to work during a solar flare, instead of cowering inside a hardened radiation shelter (although they couldn't go outside, of course).

So what secondary reasons are there for putting a base inside a lava tube?


[1] De Angelis, J.W.Wilson, M.S.Clowdsley, J.E.Nealy, D.Humes and J.M.Clem, 'Lunar Lava Tube Radiation Safety Analysis'

Thursday, February 19, 2004

There's a bug in my website, dear Lisa, dear Lisa...

...but it's fixed now. Yay for accessibility guidelines. My website looks good in Lynx.

Lava tubes and rilles

If you've been following discussions on recently, you'll have seen a lot of discussion of the idea of using lava tubes as the basis for a (permanent) Moon base.

Lava tubes are long tunnels formed by flowing molten lava. They are well quite common in volcanic areas of the Earth, and can often be a mile or more in length.

We know that they exist on the Moon - one of the Apollo missions landed near to a feature called Hadley Rille. A rille is a valley created when the ceiling of a lava tube falls in. If you consider that Hadley Rille is visible from the Earth, given a moderately powerful telescope, you gain some idea of the size the Hadley lava tube must have been. You could comfortably put a village down inside it. We don't get lava tubes that size on Earth because the Earth's gravity is too strong.

Some rilles we have observed have gaps in them - sections of lava tube which have not collapsed. So we could postulate that in many places on the moon, there are these lava tubes: massive, naturally formed tunnels. But why are these tunnels so interesting for the purposes of colonisation?

For more information see:

Monday, February 16, 2004


I was very bored today. So, noting that my little brothers were playing medieval armies with their Lego, I built siege weaponry. Mwahahahahaha.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Sunday afternoon

I walked through the village as darkness fell this evening. I walked a route I have walked a hundred times, but this time I saw things I had never noticed before, or if I had noticed them had not paid any attention to. I saw birds flitting from tree to leafless tree, and heard many more chirping away unseen in the hedgerows. I saw the yellow streetlights coming on one by one as the daylight seeped away, and people closing curtains at lit windows. I saw a young couple in walking boots and waterproofs strolling through the fields together in happy silence, and two ladies walking their three dogs. I saw a little bird watch me from a gable, silhouetted against the sky. I heard the bells ringing from the Abbey, drowning out the ever-present background drone of traffic for a few short minutes. I saw a red telephone box in a puddle of light from a streetlight above it, bright lights in the hotel bar spilling into the street, the first few green leaves of a new cereal crop pushing their way above the soil. I saw the Abbey lit up by its floodlights, and the Catholic church sleeping in silent darkness. I saw a hill crowned by tall trees breaking the curve of the horizon. I saw two geese fly low above me, and heard their honking, like distorted car horns.

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn Is to love and be loved in return."

I'm lonely tonight.

Monday, February 09, 2004


It's not my website that's broken. It's Internet Explorer. Use a decent browser. More detail later. Lizzie and I went to see a movie on Saturday afternoon! We'd been meaning to for months, but had always been too busy to get round to it. We went to see The Last Samurai in Oxford, and I enjoyed it lots. It's an action film, but it's very thoughtful (or at least seems to be): much more Saving Private Ryan than Blade. I will be buying it on DVD. I also updated my website, paring down the content of the XHTML files to the bare minimum (no more tables)! So that means that it's all the more important that your browser supports CSS2. I also changed all my file extensions to '.xml'. Because I do all my testing on non-broken browsers (i.e. Mozilla Firebird and Opera), I didn't notice that IE doesn't look at XML doctype definitions to see whether it can render the document. Basically, IE is broken. I'll fix it next weekend.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Dodgy coffee

I thought I'd found a bug in my Java code. But it was my fault. Debugging takes way too long.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Cutting it fine

I just received a letter from the Year in Industry, inviting me to interview at a little company called QinetiQ. It looks pretty exciting to me: once again, there are aspects to their R & D work that seem quite relevant to what I want to do! Upon opening the letter, I saw that they want me to respond to them by tomorrow. That seems to be cutting it fine. Then again, it's postmarked the 2nd and it was sent first class, so it should have got to my home on Tuesday. Oh well, maybe it's just my parents not getting through the post fast enough. Tomorrow's our Parents Evening here at school.


I just discovered Subversion. It looks like it'll be a pretty amazing piece of software in a few months once they get the teething problems sorted out. I especially like the idea of being able to access it through WebDAV: it brings the possibility of running it through a firewall, which you can't do with CVS. In fact, it seems much more feature-complete than CVS.

The BBC needs to learn their lesson

BBC News Online: Linux cyber-battle turns nasty. I noticed this article this morning, and immediately commented about it on Groklaw. If you read it, you'll find that it is quite easily potentially libellous towards Linux users as a whole, and really based purely on PR statements made by companies which have a vested interest in discrediting Linux users! I can't believe that the BBC haven't learnt their lesson after the Hutton Report: they really need to make sure that the news they report is backed up by hard evidence. The reporter could have at least made sure that he investigated the flip side of the story: Linux users' reactions to the MyDoom virus being written to pin the blame on them. Like many other Groklaw-ers, I submitted a complaint about the story to the BBC.

Typing away

I've been firing of lots of e-mails this morning already. First off was to my contact at the Year in Industry. It's now been two weeks since I (tried) to contact MBDA Missile Systems, and they haven't even sent me an acknowledgement of receipt of my application. I'm naturally a bit concerned, and that's what I've told her. I can't help but worry that they've thought, "This guy's so rude, we're going to ignore him." And I really, really want the placement. Then I e-mailed a couple of my friends: one who used to go to primary school with me, and one who I got in contact with through shooting. Interestingly, all three people I e-mailed this morning were female. On the subject of YinI, apparently some company called QinetiQ want to interview me... *goes to look at website*

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

No smoke without fire

In our boarding house at school, we have a number of red water fire extinguishers. These are about 10 kg each, and have a little tag that inserts into the handle to stop you from accidentally setting them off. It seems that quite often the tags go missing, but as long as the handle is depressed the fire extinguisher is still servicable and doesn't have to be reprocessed. So this evening I was somewhat bemused when two kids I caught messing about with a fire extinguisher seemed to think that the fact the tag was missing somehow absolved them from all blame, and that I was being unreasonable in going ballistic at them! I don't think they understood quite how serious an offence they were committing. IIRC, it's a criminal offence in this country to tamper with firefighting equipment.
I just set a new personal best for indoor shooting: 98 out of 100. Only two points away from a possible!
Wow... my fortnightly report this morning was insane. That makes five Commendable effort grades so far this term! I've had them before, but never so many...

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

I'm not very good at writing. I find it very hard to express my thoughts and concepts in words in the way I want. I always find myself deleting things and correcting my grammar and phrasing, and I never seem to be able to get it just right.

This is, in a way, why I don't really write as well in my journal as others write in theirs. I think of things I'd like to say, but I never manage to rationalize my thoughts sufficiently to be able to write them up for people to read.

I suppose this is essentially writers' block, of a kind.

I have another problem which I really need to work on, too. I never seem to be able to stick at something until it's done. There's always something else that grabs my interest and distracts me. That's why there are numerous pieces of half-written software lying about my computer's hard drive. Very often, the bits I've written work perfectly, but I've never managed to get round to finishing anything.

For example, consider the Nice & Easy Website Templating System (NEWTS), my home-written templating engine written to power this site. The concept behind writing it was very simple: I wanted to have the power of server-side scripting in terms of the ability to abstract content from formatting, but without having to pay for dynamic web hosting. So NEWTS is a command-line application written in PHP that applies templates to a tree of source files. There's lots wrong with it that I really ought to fix, but it works, so I'm not really motivated to fix it. I've skimmed around the edges of rewriting using XML/XSLT & Java during the last week, but I haven't really got anywhere.

Also phpCO, my web-interfaced address book program. It does all I need it to do, so I don't worry about finishing writing it. Once again, I skirted around the edges of a much better implementation a few months ago, and once again I didn't get anywhere really.

I'm currently having the same problem with my studies and my instrumental practise. This is bad.