An illustration depicts the Nova-C lander with NASA’s Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) attached to the spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. Image courtesy of Intuitive Machines/NASA
ORLANDO, Fla., March 7 (UPI) -- NASA's desire to mine ice and minerals on the moon is driving new research on Earth into how astronauts could use moon materials to make machine parts, pave roads and construct living quarters.
Scientists have studied lunar rocks brought back from Apollo missions, and NASA has confirmed the existence of water ice in craters on the moon's South Pole. University scholars and engineers at NASA are now trying to perfect uses for those resources.
NASA wants to be ready to mine whatever it finds when it lands, probably on the South Pole of the moon, for upcoming missions, according to Jerry Sanders, an agency engineer and team leader on such mining efforts.
"When we go to the north or the south pole, and we actually start mucking about with the regolith, we may find some things that the Apollo missions didn't, but from a very large perspective, we think we know what to expect," Sanders told UPI in an interview.
NASA currently plans to land humans on the lunar South Pole in 2025 if the agency receives adequate funding from Congress. A rover mission, Viper, is expected to map resources and lunar ice deposits around the South Pole in 2023.
Lunar ice could be used not only to drink and grow crops, but also to convert into hydrogen or oxygen fuel. Minerals could also be extracted to feed 3D printers for manufacturing -- all without the lengthy delivery time from Earth.
The newest lunar resource effort has awarded up to $2 million each to three universities to advance techniques that will help NASA mine and process lunar materials.
Specific mineral extraction for manufacturing will be the focus for the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rolla, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.
A team from the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, will develop tools and methods to allow robotic construction of mining roads, landing pads and living quarters -- which may use minerals from the lunar rocks.
Researchers from Auburn University, in southern Alabama, will create new electronics that maintain reliability despite the lunar environment's extreme cold.
The Missouri team will also find ways to process regolith that contains common anorthite, a rock type found all over the moon, Leslie Gertsch, associate professor of geological engineering, told UPI in an interview.
The scientists plan to develop a piece of equipment that can be fed "a shovel full of random regolith on the moon and it will chug along," Gertsch said. "What comes out will be extremely small particles that contain about 70% anorthite."
Such a basic feedstock of minerals could then be processed again to extract calcium, magnesium, silicon and oxygen -- along with some impurities, she said. Those minerals could be used to manufacture things like glass and ceramics.
"We'll be testing our processes in air and in a vacuum, extreme heat and cold -- just like conditions on the moon," Gertsch said.
No actual moon rocks will be used in the Missouri experiments, she noted.
"Although I'd love to work with actual moon rocks, we need a lot of material," says Gertsch. "We'll use simulated regolith that is the best estimate of what lunar soils are like."
The Colorado team has been anticipating new needs for lunar mining techniques for over 20 years, Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, told UPI in an interview.
"We will need landing sites and construction sites on the moon," Abbud-Madrid said. "Just like you do on Earth, you have to remove hills, remove rocks and fill craters, or holes. We study how to do that on the moon."
Such work by the Colorado team in the past included development of pads that could be carried to the moon, unrolled and used as landing pads. Such a device may be needed because lunar dust has fine, sharp particles that can cut or scratch equipment.
Another project he's working on includes a robotic arm that could be used to scoop regolith, he said.
"One of the big questions we've worked on is what can we do with pure lunar regolith," he said. "Can you just heat it up to the point that you spread it, and now you have a road? Or do you need additives, something else to mix it with? And if you do, can you find that on the moon? These are questions to answer."
In the meantime, Abbud-Madrid and Gertsch both said they plan to keep an eye on the robotic landers and rovers NASA will send to the moon in coming years for new data for their ongoing research.
Moghbeli poses for a portrait in the Systems Engineering Simulator for the International Space Station and advanced spaceflight programs at the Johnson Space Center on July 9, 2019. She will train for the moon mission. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA