The Moon Unearthed

17 March 2011 (Last Updated March 17th, 2011 18:30)

The day we mine on the moon may seem light-years away. But, according to global space centres, that day could come sooner than we think. Sarah Blackman talks to NASA Space Systems Engineer Rob Mueller to find out what preparations are being made for such an important mission.

The Moon Unearthed

As starry-eyed an idea as it may seem, preparations are already under way to build a lunar outpost on the moon, an inhabited facility, which could enable long-term excavation, processing and storage.

Leading up to the big launch, technologies and machines are being built that will be capable of working in an environment with low gravity, low reaction forces and highly abrasive dust.

Spacecraft - both robotic and manned - have also explored the lunar soil, known as regolith, and found some exciting resources that could sustain our environment for years to come. One example is the isotope Helium 3, which, according to experts, has the potential to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power.

These resources on the moon are so valuable that several countries are racing to plant their flag there and get to work.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has announced intentions to plan a manned lunar landing for 2020, which would lead to a manned lunar base by 2030, but there is currently no budget for this project.

"We are also collaborating with the industry, universities and government agencies."

Meanwhile, the China National Space Administration, and Russia's Rocket and Space Corporation Energia are investigating the prospect of lunar mining and setting up office in outer-space.

India hasn't been left out of the equation either; in 2008 the country's first unmanned mission to the moon helped it map out the chemical and mineralogical content of the lunar surface, in preparation for future excavation.

Not forgetting the USA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has big plans for the moon, which is set to be a testing ground for its future mission to Mars, and beyond.

Here, NASA Space Systems Engineer Rob Mueller discusses these plans and talks about the challenges of mining the moon and the key resources that NASA and other countries hope to dig up.

Sarah Blackman: How do we know there are minerals worth mining on the moon?

Rob Mueller: We have a very good knowledge of what is on the moon and what resources are on the moon, primarily because of our manned Apollo missions. Prior to these, there was a series of robotic missions in the mid-1960s that sent robotic space craft called surveyor space craft. In the early days, nobody knew if the Apollo lander could land on the surface of the moon or whether it would be swallowed up in a large dust cloud - they didn't know whether it was hard or soft. So these surveyors proved that the moon is actually very consolidated.

The astronauts on the Apollo missions conducted geotechnical experiments and seismic experiments to measure the properties of the regolith and the actual geotechnical properties of the moon itself. More recently, we have had a mission called the LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission. This was a probe that was sent to the moon about two years ago. The idea was to impact the moon and see what kind of plume was created. By measuring the elements and compounds in that plume we were able to tell what kind of resources there are.

From analysing the data from the LCROSS mission found that, in the north and south poles, there are areas that haven't seen sun light for 4.5bn years because they are in permanent shadow. This creates a cold trap where these resources can collect and survive, even in a vacuum.

SB: What minerals do you hope to bring back from the moon?

RM: The main ingredient that we are interested in on the moon is oxygen because it can be used for breathing air and as a rocket propellant. The regolith has oxygen bound up in the form of calcium oxide, iron oxide and titanium oxide. This regolith can be processed and the oxygen can be extracted. Another resource is the regolith itself; this can be used for radiation shielding or for construction.

"These surveyors proved that the moon is actually very consolidated."

There is also lots of iron on the moon that doesn't have to be extracted from its mineral forms. But, one of the exciting things is that we have discovered water and water ice on the moon. This could change the future of human space exploration. Another way of getting oxygen is to melt the water ice and electrolyse it to make hydrogen and oxygen. We have also found carbon monoxide, mercury, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia during our missions.

SB: Harrison Schmitt from the Apollo 17 mission said that Helium 3, which the moon holds in abundance, has the potential to replace fossil fuels like coal. Does NASA have plans to extract this resource?

RM: Yes. One way to enable fusion of energy on earth is to use Helium 3. However, Helium 3 is only available in very, very limited quantities here. The isotype comes from the sun - a giant fusion reactor - and is embedded in the regolith on the moon. So Helium 3 could be mined on the moon, brought back to earth and used in fusion reactors to create energy.

SB: Shouldn't we concentrate on the resources we have on earth and create a sustainable environment before taking the moon's and other planet's resources?

RM: Well, going to the moon is a model for sustainability because, on the moon, everything you take, in theory, should be recycled so that you can minimise your logistics train. If you think of the moon as a small eco-system that you are building, you can learn to develop new technologies that can be applicable here on earth.

It is very expensive to transport things to the moon, so if we can live off the land and use local resources we can reduce these costs and, at the same time, we can learn how to live sustainably in a model community.

SB: Have you found that mineral hungry nations are racing to mine for resources on the moon?

RM: Yes, I think there has been a lot of interest from many different countries in exploration but there is an issue over property rights. This is something that hasn't been solved yet. Also, if a commercial entity goes and mines minerals on the moon, who do they belong to? These are some of the legal aspects that haven't been worked out yet.

SB: What challenges would you face when mining on the moon that you wouldn't have to face on earth?

RM: It is very different to mining on earth, primarily because of the low gravity; the gravity on the moon is about 1/6 of the gravity on earth. When you go to a typical mine on earth you will find heavy machinery such as large excavators. First of all, we won't be able to transport this type of equipment to the moon, and when you get there, the reaction forces are very low. So, we have to reinvent all the equipment that goes there and that's a big challenge.

We need to address how to operate in a vacuum environment, away from the earth for five years or more with zero maintenance. Also, the lunar soil has highly abrasive dust which tends to damage equipment, so the life-time of equipment is a big issue on the moon. The best solution to avoid damage from the dust is to keep it off in the first place, so we are developing all kinds of seals, covers, mechanisms and shielding to keep the dust away.

SB: What are the steps involved in acquiring resources on the moon?

RM: The first step is transportation; you have to bring the machines to the surface of the moon from the earth. Once you have brought it there, you have to deploy the machine from the lander. Then, once the machine is on the surface of the moon, it has to dig and acquire the regolith.

Then it has to transport the regolith back to a chemical plant on the lander and the plant processes the regolith in order to extract the resource, for example hydrogen and oxygen. For greater efficiency, these resources need to be cryogenically stored in liquid form.

SB: Are you collaborating with the mining industry to help with your research?

"One way to enable fusion of energy on earth is to use Helium 3."

RM:We are also collaborating with the industry, universities and government agencies to get the best knowledge we can to provide the best solutions for mining on the moon and other planets. We currently have a contract with Caterpillar which is called the Innovative Partnerships Programme and we collaborating with them for autonomy technologies. Caterpillar is interested in removing the man from the machine so that the machine can be driven remotely.

In a deep mine this is much more efficient because it can operate 24/7 and there is a better safety aspect to it. In terms of collaborating with universities, we have a competition called the NASA Lunar Robotics Mining Competition. Last year 22 universities came to the finals at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The goal is very simple, design a robot that can dig and deliver the most lunar regolith to a hopper that is 1m above the ground to win. We have a minimum requirement of 10kg,so in order to win a prize you have to deposit at least 10kg into that hopper.