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Mining the Moon, APL orchestrates lunar exploration planning

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The resources on the moon, Mars and Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are a business opportunity of nearly immeasurable potential.

Getting to them – and using their abundance to improve the human condition on Earth – will require a sustained presence in deep space and on the moon’s surface.

With that in mind, NASA held its inaugural Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium (LSIC) meeting Feb. 28 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel.

The Consortium experts from academia, industry and government who are developing the technologies and systems want to explore the lunar surface in new ways and seek recommendations for a strategy to deploy those technologies.

Acting as an information clearinghouse, APL operates the LSIC in collaboration with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) under the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative (LSII).

“We see LSIC as the center between government, industry and academia and we need to pull in the nonprofits as well,” said Rachel Klima, an APL planetary scientist who is helping develop a small satellite concept mission to detect and map water on the moon.

The LSIC focuses on six specific areas: sustainable power, extreme environments, extreme access, lunar dust mitigation, surface excavation and construction and in situ resource utilization.

New Economy

One of the LSIC’s goals is to transition technology from universities and research laboratories to industry as it is developed.

“We can have discussions about standards, identify gaps and … feed into the opportunities that STMD is putting out to the [business] community,” Klima said.

Tory Bruno, CEO of Colorado-based United Launch Alliance, a commercial launch service provider, said NASA’s Artemis program aims to return humans to the moon by 2024, the first step in unlocking a multi-trillion-dollar cislunar space economy.

As envisioned, this economy would be supported by the planned Lunar Gateway station serving as both a deep space manufacturing facility and a way station for explorers on their way to or from the moon, Mars or NEOs.

Placed in stationary orbit at a Lagrangian point between the moon and Earth, the Gateway station’s microgravity would enable the manufacture of things like high purity fiber optics and very complex, delicate human tissues that can’t be additively manufactured or grown on Earth due to the planet’s density effects.

“God forbid any of you need a kidney or an artificial heart, well, how about a real one grown from your actual tissue?” Bruno asked. “Eventually, all of this is going to be kick started by the Artemis program, not just scientific research, but industrial research.”

With the moon’s cloudless surface receiving 10 times the energy density of Earth and with locations that always face the sun, lunar-based solar power generation could deliver inexpensive, reliable electricity to users all over the Earth.

“What will that do for the state of human dignity on our planet?” Bruno asked.

New Industry

Scientists estimate that 1,000 years worth of Earth’s entire planetary production of industrial metals are available on the moon and on NEOs, including iron, titanium, nickel and manganese.

A fleet of reusable rockets launching from Gateway or the low-gravity lunar surface and powered by fuel derived from the moon’s vast ice deposits could drastically reduce the cost associated with reaching Mars or NEOs on a sustainable basis.

“I’m not the only one with this idea and vision,” Bruno said, noting that more than 200 companies, universities and startup entrepreneurs so far make up the cislunar marketplace that’s working to make a space-based economy a reality.

“There is a lot more research to be done,” he said, starting with using lunar resources to manufacture lightweight construction materials that provide adequate radiation shielding for both habitats and spacecraft hulls.

“The question is, how does this get going and what are the economics?” Bruno asked, suggesting there is a strong business case for private enterprise to mine lunar ice to supply propellant, operate power stations and sell excess capacity to other commercial customers who want to prospect on or otherwise develop NEOs.

“I think it’s really about government playing the role it always has, pooling our resources … to kick start the infrastructure for the economic activities that follow,” he said.

New Jobs

In addition to scientific and technological expertise, commercial space companies will be looking for employees with business savvy as well, Klima said.

“For academia, this [Consortium] is going to be a good way to hear about these opportunities,” she said. “We hope to provide outlets for students either through internships and potentially jobs.”

Ralph Semmel, APL’s director, said the challenges of establishing a sustainable lunar habitat require the collective wisdom of partners around the world.

“This Consortium [will] foster collaboration through relationship building, information exchanges and the creation of resources and capabilities which can be shared,” he said.

Photo courtesy NASA.
Artist’s conception of the Lunar Gateway space station that would pave the way for a sustainable presence on the moon and the start of a space-based economy.

Companies such as Emergent Space Technologies of Laurel, which specializes in guidance, navigation and control systems, orbital mechanics, modeling and simulation, ground systems engineering and other space-specific services, could soon see much higher demand for their expertise.

“It’s an all hands-on deck approach to Artemis and exploration in general,” said Steve Jurcyk, NASA’s Associate Administrator.

“Being part of returning to the moon is, like, really freakin’ cool,” Klima said. “Who doesn’t want to do that?”

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | April 2020 Issue

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