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The moon is completely uninhabitable. Could high-tech lighting change that?

Light design can mimic the feeling of home, even 238,000 miles away.

The moon is completely uninhabitable. Could high-tech lighting change that?
[Photo: courtesy SAGA Space Architects]

Gray, cratered rock as far as the eye can see. Constant sun for two weeks straight, followed by two weeks of complete darkness. And static silence. That’s life on the moon, which is not a naturally hospitable place. But a team of designers is working to make human habitation a little more possible.

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[Photo: courtesy SAGA Space Architects]
Lighting design firm Louis Poulsen and SAGA Space Architects are collaborating on a transportable “moon habitat” for astronauts called Lunark. Using dynamic lighting design, it would mimic how we experience light here on Earth, and it could make all the difference in safeguarding the mental health of astronauts in extreme environments.

[Photo: courtesy SAGA Space Architects]
Lunark is a collapsible egg-shaped pod that has a carbon fiber shell and foam core panels for extra insulation. The load-bearing structure is an aluminum frame that hitches to the ground with cables, like a tent.

SAGA Space Architects tested Lunark in an environment that’s about as close as you can get to the moon without leaving Earth: the frozen tundra about 620 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in Greenland. Over a three-month period this winter, SAGA cofounders Sebastian Aristotelis and Karl-Johan Sørensen camped out in the small pod completely off the grid, with minus 41-degree wind chill. Due to the extreme conditions, Lunark had only a few tiny slivers of windows. The rest of the light came from artificial LEDs, which provided some insight into what longer-term lunar habitation might be like.

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[Photo: courtesy SAGA Space Architects]
The team at Louis Poulsen focused on three components: dynamic circadian light ceiling panels, task lighting, and small moveable lamps. Kasper Hammer, a director of product and design at Louis Poulsen, associates the three artificial light systems with three natural light sources: the sky, a fire, and candlelight.

[Photo: courtesy SAGA Space Architects]
Key to maintaining astronauts’ physical and mental well-being were the circadian light panels, which mimic the natural light patterns we’re familiar with here on Earth. Louis Poulsen developed the programming and sequences of the dynamic lighting in the panels. SAGA architects and LED supplier YujiLEDs developed the hardware. Hammer of Louis Poulsen says the panels “made a huge difference” in the mental health of the explorers.

The circadian panels brighten at 6 a.m. and go dark in the evening. Purple and red lights replicate what happens during sunrise and sunset. But they also help differentiate between days: Some days the lighting remains dim, to re-create a cloudy setting; other times it’s more dynamic to mimic, say, passing clouds or full sun. There’s also a light show of sorts on Saturdays, when the space is bathed in monochromatic light like the aurora borealis. Hammer says the two men camped out in the hut really looked forward to the change of pace.

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[Photo: courtesy SAGA Space Architects]
Overall, Hammer says the team wanted to make the space as enjoyable as possible. “It’s not about surviving,” he says. It’s about using the light to make a hospitable and—perhaps—even comfortable environment for astronauts visiting the moon. The project isn’t associated with NASA, which makes it a moon shot itself, of sorts.

Hammer also contends that the Lunark unit isn’t just for astronauts. “We felt it’s relevant in pretty much any replication on Earth as well,” he says. “[Lunark] was set up when there was light in Greenland and then no light at all.” But it won’t be available anytime in the near future. SAGA has to wait until this summer to retrieve the Lunark from the icy tundra, and then a Lunark 2.0 will go through another round of testing—just enough time for NASA’s next scheduled moon landing in 2024.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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