Settlements on the moon where astronauts will live permanently or semi-permanently are closer to becoming a reality than ever before with everyone from NASA to the Russian space agency setting their sights on a return to Earth's only natural satellite over the next decade or so.

But what exactly will these first lunar settlements look like? Haym Benaroya—a professor at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Rutgers University thinks he has an idea.

Benaroya has spent much of his career investigating the possibilities for space settlements and designing structures for the moon, as well as other extreme environments on Earth such as the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea. He says that, initially, any habitable structures on the moon would be very small.

"A lunar base may have two or three rooms the size of a typical office," Benaroya said in a statement. "We will bring structures – basically prefabbed cylinders like the ones on the International Space Station—from Earth. One concept is to cover them with about 10 feet of regolith—the small rocks covering the moon's surface—because that would shield the interior from micrometeorites, extreme temperatures and radiation."

Designing structures for the lunar surface presents its own set of unique challenges due to the particularities of the environment there.

"It's a low-gravity environment in a vacuum, with very high to very low temperatures and intense radiation from the sun," Benaroya said. "Micrometeorites the size of sand grains travel around 10 miles a second, so shielding is needed to keep them from going through you. The main challenge is to determine the forces these structures will face so we can design ones that will survive."

When designing the structures it is also important to take into account the various physical and mental stresses that the human body has to endure in space.

"It is a psychological challenge for most humans to live in small spaces," he said. "The low-gravity environment changes blood flow and affects the eyes, bones and muscles. Some regolith particles are tiny and jagged, and they get into astronaut suits and machines. One issue is how to filter them from space suits, prevent astronauts from dragging them into structures, and safeguard rovers and other equipment outside."

Benaroya estimates that it will probably take between 10 and 15 years to establish a colony on the moon, given that much of the technology required is already available.

"The biggest challenge is ensuring that people survive on the moon," he said. "Initially, astronauts will live there for six- to 12-month stints like they do on the space station."

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