NASA is pressing ahead with its mission to mine metals on the moon, seeking to bolster the sustainable space travel market and set the tone for a growing space race with China.
The space agency has announced a search for university researchers to explore using metal extracted from the surface layer of the moon in 3D printing and other material sciences technologies.
The solicitation joins a growing roster of efforts out of NASA to leverage resources in space to avoid having to use more fuel from Earth.
This kind of work conjures sci-fi images of robotic moon mining rigs feeding sophisticated manufacturing plants that can be used for repairing vehicles or building facilities for lunar operations.
“There are certain metals we might be able to extract in different parts of the moon and we might need to start manufacturing with them if we are going to build things on the moon,” said NASA Space Technology Research Grants program executive Matt Deans.
While at an early stage, Deans said “the solicitation does spell out we want to construct things eventually.”
The Lunar Surface Technology Research program is part of NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative to fund early-stage technology that could end up transitioning into large production contracts.
NASA isn’t the only organization putting money toward this space mining goal.
Venture-backed asteroid mining startup AstroForge is working on technology to extract and process materials on-site, meaning they would need less volume and fuel to get back to Earth.
Earlier this month, Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, showcased its Blue Alchemist program using simulated lunar rock layer to make solar cells and transmission wire. The company has been working on resource extraction and utilization with NASA for years.
Rising interest in metal mining in space coincides with improvements and greater investment in tech like 3D printing, which government agencies have been eyeing for shipyards and other manufacturing hubs.
Metal isn’t the only, or even the main, resource being discussed in terms of extraction from the moon.
Deans said the agency historically focused on what are called mission consumables: “things you burn or breathe, and primarily water and oxygen.”
Metal mining is a bit farther down the road, RAND senior engineer Jan Osburg said.
Water on the moon is trapped in craters that never see sunlight, and once extracted it could provide future NASA operations with everything from hydrogen fuel to oxygen for astronauts.
Generating oxygen—which has obvious benefits for human explorers of space—is in the experimental stage. A program called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, features a payload on the Perseverance rover.
All of that production of water or oxygen takes energy. Extracting metal requires even more to get out of rock, process, and use in manufacturing.
Some potential solutions include nuclear reactors, Osburg said. And while LuSTR focuses on grants, he says the tech that eventually transitions into contracts will fuel the future of travel in space. “Every contract awarded for that is some piece of the process for turning the lunar South Pole into some kind of a resource hub.”
“We have a bunch of technologies that are eventually going to the moon in the not-too-distant future that have their roots in our early-stage innovation programs,” Deans said.
LuSTR is also looking at active dust mitigation technology and the use of coordinated robots for “extreme access and exploration” of the moon.
New Space Race
Osburg said the establishment of the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration mission spending targets a concrete set of problems with a clear goal in mind.
“We’re not just developing tech for ‘TBD’ future use,” he said.
China’s accelerating investments in space have increased the urgency as well, sparking something of a new space race that NASA and other US agencies hope to win. “The Chinese definitely have clear ambitions and are taking steps toward it,” Osburg said.
When it comes to resource extraction, Osburg said there’s a clear advantage to being first. “Even though space is literally or at least practically infinite,” Osburg said, “there are very few of these spots that are what I’d call prime real estate in space that are reachable and we can leverage with our current technology in the next few decades.”
The advantage extends beyond getting first dibs on what there is to be dug up. There’s also the role in establishing norms and precedents for how space operations should be conducted.
Existing treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty, offer some guidance—such as prohibiting land claims on the moon—but many have yet to be tested in real world operations.
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