An artist's concept of the ARTEMIS spacecraft in orbit around the Moon
An artist's concept of the ARTEMIS spacecraft in orbit around the Moon NASA

Elon Musk has identified a serious flaw in SpaceX's plan to establish a base on the Moon. The company's proposed Moon base, which will be fully operated by a human crew, was supposed to serve as a refuelling station for SpaceX's fully reusable spacecraft Starship.

For a space-based refuelling station to operate properly, it would rely on a supply of locally available carbon dioxide and liquid water. Through various special procedures, the facility can turn these two important resources into fuel. This is the concept that SpaceX is relying on for its future base on the Moon.

According to the company, its Moon base will serve an important role once Starship gets fully operational in providing commercial spaceflights to the lunar surface and even other planets such as Mars. In order to lower the cost and overall weight of the spacecraft, SpaceX intends to equip it with just enough fuel for a trip to the Moon. Once on the lunar surface, the spacecraft will be refuelled for its voyage back to Earth.

Unfortunately, unlike Mars and Earth, the Moon does not have an atmosphere. This means it can't produce its own carbon dioxide. Musk is aware of this issue and is hoping to tap into the Moon's carbon dioxide deposits that came from meteorites that crashed into the lunar surface. However, it is not yet clear if these deposits have enough carbon dioxide to support a fully operation Moon base.

Starship
Prototype of Starship YouTube

"Big challenge for Starship refuelling on the Moon is finding sources of carbon," the SpaceX founder tweeted. "Probably some pretty big deposits in craters from meteorites. Same goes for hydrogen and oxygen, also in shadowed craters."

Aside from finding a rich supply of carbon dioxide on the Moon, another issue that could hinder SpaceX's Moon base is the challenge of setting up a facility on the lunar surface. As noted by planetary physicist Phil Metzger, establishing a station that can mine and process natural resources on Earth is already very challenging. This means that setting up a similar facility on an unfamiliar territory such as the Moon would be even harder.

"Here on the Earth, to set up a mine, it can take 20 years — and that's on the Earth," Metzger told The Verge. "So when you talk about setting up a mine on the Moon, it's harder, especially because we have less understanding of the resource, and we have zero experience in doing mining operations in that environment."