How Can We Mine The Moon For Rocket Fuel?

The Artemis program is thought to lead us in a new age of lunar mining, particularly for water ice. But how, exactly?

The Moon is a wealth of valuable resources. Platinum, Gold, and various rare earth metals await extraction to be used in the next-generation electronics. 

What Is The Most Valuable Resource on The Moon?

Furthermore, non-radioactive helium-3 could one-day power future thermonuclear fusion reactors. However, there’s one resource, in particular, that has triggered scientists, space agency officials, rocket engineers, industry entrepreneurs practically anyone with an absolute interest in making spaceflight to distant worlds more affordable. And that is water. 

Why may you ask? Well, if you split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and then liquefy these ingredients, you will have rocket propellant. If you can have a stop at the Moon’s orbit or at a lunar base to refuel, you will no longer need to bring all your fuel, making your spacecraft significantly lighter and cheaper to launch. 

So, that’s very important because our Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull require the use of tons of fuel per second when rockets take off. Therefore, creating a sustainable fuel source in space could reduce the costs and hazards associated with heavy blast-offs. NASA estimate there might be about 600 million metric tons of Moon ice to collect, and other higher-end calculations say one billion metric tons is a possibility. 

So, in other words, if you could mine the Moon effectively, it would become a cost-cutting interplanetary gas-station for journeys to Mars and elsewhere.

Could You Show Me The Money?

Everyone fancies a piece of the action. The ESA or the European Space Agency has a loose idea to build a “moon village” that would involve mining enterprises. 

China’s Chang’ e five lunar explorations and sample return mission is thought to be a forerunner investigation to understanding lunar water content. 

Humans Back To The Moon in 2024?

And India’s failed lunar rover mission last August was supposed to map water ice at the Moon’s south pole. 

The US has plans on lunar water, too, of course. On May 15, NASA declared the Artemis Accords a proposed legal frame for mining on the lunar surface. It is named after NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024. 

Artemis. Credit: NASA.

NASA’s Artemis Moon Program

Artemis is the crucial step toward installing a permanent American presence on the lunar surface. The tenets touch on issues that involve emergency assistance services and interoperability of technology standards. So, more importantly, the Artemis Accords allow the US to dictate the terms of lunar mining before other countries can. 

They also propose setting up neutral “safety zones” between different Moon bases to prevent conflict and interference between companies and countries.

Radiation And Cold Temperatures Could Jeopardize Humans

However, what they can’t tell us is how we’ll access the Moon’s water. There are lots of barriers. For example, radiation and cold temperatures could jeopardize humans and degenerate delicate equipment. 

Therefore, it’s not ideal to have a considerable crew of human beings operating these kinds of works day in and day out. Still, it’s equally unclear how much can be assigned to autonomous systems. 

Moon soil itself, jagged and coarse, and likely to stick to everything, could destroy machinery and pose safety issues to operators in spacesuits. Although we’ve presented the feasibility of refueling satellites in orbit, doing the same thing for large spacecraft on the lunar surface or in orbit around the Moon will create its own set of hurdles thanks to regolith and microgravity. Regolith is the thin layer of loose material covering the Moon’s bedrock.

But we would still need to have astronauts remaining semi-permanently on the lunar surface. Therefore, NASA’s ambitious Artemis plans call for building a permanent Moon base by 2028. This, along with a Moon space station designated Gateway that’s supposed to aid the trips beyond the Moo. Still, that’s a mere four years after we are supposed to return to the lunar surface. So, this ambitious vision is still closer to science fiction than reality.

Picture showing an Artist’s concept for a Lunar base. Credit: NASA.

How Can We Extract And Purify The Lunar Water?

Despite assuming these obstacles are beatable, how easy would it be to extract the lunar water once we were there? Well, first, lunar water isn’t that easy to reach. Water on the lunar surface is in the form of small ice grains incorporated into the lunar soil, mainly located in the permanently dimmed regions inside craters near the poles. And there, temperatures of 40 K (-233.15 °C) keep the lunar water ice undisturbed and stable. 

The grains are mixed with complex metals and organics. In 2009, the mission of NASA’s LCROSS blasted a rocket into the lunar surface to fling plumes of moon rock into the air. And an examination of this airborne substance found it was only 5.6% lunar water by weight. Yet, those data, which at ten years old, is yet the most recent direct study of Moon soil water content we have. And it indicates that even if lunar water ice can be separated from the Moon soil. It’s still very dirty and would need aggressive cleaning to get rid of contaminants that would otherwise ruin any fuel made from it.

A Method For Processing Moon Water Ice

A space engineer of space architectures at the Colorado School of Mines and more than a dozen other scientists composed a paper published in the prestigious journal Reach that described one suggested method for processing Moon water ice. 

They would use large towers with concave mirrors on the top that would be erected and placed around the lunar crater edges to reflect sunlight down inside permanently shadowed areas. This energy would then heat the Moon soil to 220 K or -53.15 °C. It would be warm enough to get the lunar water ice to transfer into vapor. 

Furthermore, a tent cover over the lunar soil, transparent, so the redirected sunlight could hit the Moon’s surface, would capture and trap this lunar water vapor, which would be transferred into big aluminum units where it would freeze into ice again. 

The Moon Water Would Be Split Into Oxygen And Hydrogen

Haulers driven by astronauts would drive the ice out to a plant where it could be purified. And there, the lunar water would be split into oxygen and hydrogen through electrolysis and subsequently liquefied so the ingredients could be used as rocket fuel. 

And Trans Astronautica Corporation, situated in California, wants to do something comparable. They have sketched out plans for tall towers with solar panels to harness the energy and bring it down into the lunar craters. And then utilize microwave, radiofrequency and infrared radiation to purify the lunar water ice. 

And none of these steps is exotic. They already exist as industrial-scale applications here on Earth. But the low gravity should make it much easier to build and also to move materials around the lunar surface. 

Picture showing a moon base. Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquefier Systems Group.
Picture showing a moon base. Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquefier Systems Group.

We Need Astronauts On The Moon To Run Specific Functions

Nevertheless, these ideas do require astronauts on the Moon to run specific functions. Keeping those astronauts comfortable and safe and housed would need an extraordinary quantity of energy and resources. 

OffWorld, a space robotics corporation with facilities in Luxembourg and California, wants to make water ice mining on the Moon totally autonomous process, operated by a multitude of AI-powered robots.

Yet none of these techniques or plans are anywhere near ready yet. Although we’ve demonstrated the ability to operate landers and rovers on the lunar surface to withstand radiation and cold temperatures and, we don’t know if big infrastructures can last just as long. 

The Most Significant Technical Limitation Is The Purification Process.

Each region of the lunar surface sits in the shade for two weeks of the month and for even longer if we’re talking about the permanently shaded parts of lunar craters. Therefore, it’s not simple to wake a piece of technology from a 40 K slumber.

According to a space technologist at the University of Central Florida and a co-author of the Reach paper Phil Metzger, the most significant technical limitation to water ice mining on the lunar surface is the only issue that “keeps us up at night,” is the purification process. Because we don’t have lunar samples to test these technologies regularly, it’s challenging to produce membranes to filter out contaminants specific to our Moon.

Therefore, impurities could make the liquid hydrogen and the dissolved oxygen fuel unusable or worse, explosive, and unstable. 

Water collecting on the Moon will have a high failure rate for many years, Metzger says. “I don’t think the technologies people are creating and conceiving of today are going to work flawlessly on the lunar surface,” he says. “But I do believe strongly there will be a lot of manufacturing activity on the moon within many decades,” he adds.

That’s it, thank you for reading this article. If you want to learn more about our Moon, then please head over to this interesting article named: Moon Facts – Interesting & Strange Facts About The Moon.

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