Earth-bound mining companies sometimes use microbes to extract valuable minerals from rock. About 20% of the world’s copper and gold production is aided by rock-chewing bacteria. Researchers began wondering how well they would fare in the vacuum and low gravity of space.
In a first-of-its-kind experiment in 2019, astronauts on the International Space Station last year activated a series of miniaturized, matchbox-sized mining devices with small blocks of basalt, a volcanic rock that is common on the Moon. Three types of bacteria were selected to munch on the rocks for about three weeks while spun in centrifuges mimicking gravitational conditions on the Moon, Mars and Earth.
Researchers measured how much iron, magnesium and a dozen other elements the bacteria pulled out of the rock samples. Of the three, one stood out: Sphingomonas desiccabilis. It displayed 70% efficiency in extracting neodymium and cerium, two so-called rare earth minerals.
“We were surprised that there was no significant effect of the different gravities on the biomining, given that microgravity is known to influence the behavior of fluids,” astrobiologist and study co-lead author Charles Cockell told Space.com.
I think we should continue exploring the types of microbes that would give us the best results in extracting useful elements from materials to be found in space, such as on asteroids, the moon and Mars, and we should continue to develop the technology for optimizing these sorts of biologically enhanced industrial processes in space.
Metalysis, a Sheffield, England-based manufacturer of metal and alloy powders, has won a European Space Agency contract to develop a process to turn Moon dust into oxygen along with aluminum, iron and other metal powders that lunar colonists can use for construction, reports The Guardian.
Oxygen makes up about 45% of the molecular weight of rocks brought back from the Moon. The rest is mainly iron, aluminum and silicon. Earlier this year scientists at Metalysis and the University of Glasgow announced they could extract 95% of the oxygen from simulated lunar soil, leaving useful metal alloy powders behind.
The ESA contract will fund Metalysis for nine months to perfect an electrochemical process that extracts oxygen from dust and rocks by sending an electrical current through the material. The process is already in use in Earth, but oxygen is an unneeded byproduct. The story is quite different on the Moon, where oxygen is a major constituent of two extremely scarce commodities: breathable air and rocket fuel.
“Oxygen is useful not only for astronauts to breathe, but also as an oxidiser in rocket propulsion systems,” said Mark Symes, with the University of Glasgow. “There is no free oxygen on the moon, so astronauts would have to take all their own oxygen with them to the moon, for life support and to enable their return journey, and this adds considerably to the weight and hence expense of rocket launches bound for the moon.”
Bacon’s bottom line: The industrial-scale manufacture of oxygen and metals on the Moon will transform lunar economics by creating a virtually unlimited supply of the critical element. While this breakthrough will facilitate travel between the Moon and back, it is not enough by itself to support large-scale colonization there. Pure oxygen is poisonous to humans and must be diluted with other elements — most notably nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere — to be breathable. Also, oxygen requires a supply of hydrogen with which to interact to function as a rocket fuel. Scientists and engineers will need to identify abundant sources of these elements in order to free the Moon from the immense expense of lifting materials out of Earth’s gravity well.
Scientists are increasingly confident that there is a significant amount of water on the Moon, but there is still uncertainty as to how much. Moon-orbiting satellites that rely upon ultraviolet, visible of near-infrared light to identify ice deposits can sense only a slice of the lunar surface measurable in a few millimeters.
“You really don’t know if it’s just a very thin frost or if it extends deeper,” says Kevin Cannon, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Central Florida, who has written a paper for non-academics, “Ice Prospecting: Your Guide to Getting Rich on the Moon.” Orbiting instruments that potentially could detect ice deposits beneath the surface — such as radar and neutron spectroscopy — have much much lower spatial resolutions.”
To get better data, NASA has begun planning a mission to send a rover to the Moon with mining instruments, hopefully by late 2023. The golf cart-sized rover will survey and map ice deposits in the lunar south pole. One of the instruments is a one-meter drill called TRIDENT (The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain), reports Air & Space. Building a drill capable of penetrating the Moon’s surface in subzero temperatures is fraught with challenges. Lunar regolith, highly impacted over billions of years of bombardments, is dense. Add ice, and the soil could be harder than concrete. more “Mining for Water on the Moon”
Water is essential to space exploration and colonization. Now that it has been demonstrated that billions of gallons of ice and molecular water are found on the Moon, the challenge is to figure out how to extract it.
In MIT Technology Review, space reporter Neel V. Patel lists the obstacles. Super-cold temperatures and radiation could endanger humans and degrade equipment. Lunar dust sticks to everything, wrecking machinery and posing safety issues to workers in spacesuits. And, of course, astronaut miners would have to be housed and supported on the Moon.
Lunar water comes in the form of tiny icy grained mixed with the soil, mostly in permanently shaded regions of craters in temperatures of 40 K (-233.15 °C). To be useful as a rocket fuel the material, only 5.6% water by weight, would require aggressive processing to rid contaminants.
One proposed method would be to build large towers with concave mirrors on the top that could reflect sunlight into the shadowed regions of lunar craters trapping the water. The energy would heat the lunar soil enough to get the ice to sublimate into vapor. A tent (transparent so the light could get through) would capture the vapor, which could be moved into units where it would freeze back into ice, and then purified at a separate location. Ultimately, the water would be separated into oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis, and then liquified to the constituents used as rocket propellant.
Although humans have demonstrated the ability to operate rovers and landers that can withstand conditions on the Moon, no one knows if industrial infrastructure would hold up. Writes Patel: “It’s not easy to just wake a piece of technology from a 40 K slumber.” more “How to Extract Ice on the Moon”
Foreseeable needs for space exploration exceed projected payroll-launch capacity, so NASA envisions the need for robotic manufacturing on the Moon. A newly funded project called The Assemblers envisions a swarm of robots fabricating solar arrays and undertaking other assembly tasks on the surface of the Moon or Mars.
A new video published on Space.com shows how the assembly would look from a robot’s point of view as it examines a structure and targets certain areas for more work. On Earth, they are functioning under the watchful eye of engineers, but in time they will work autonomously.
“The project goal is to increase the technology readiness level for the modular robot, autonomous in-space assembly, and develop a robotic prototype for ground testing,” principal investigator James Neilan, a computer engineer at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, said in a statement.
The deliverable for the $2.5 million project will be a prototype that can manipulate items and assemble components in a space environment. The assemblers will use task-management software to keep tabs on errors and address issues as they arise. Writes Space.com:
The Assembler robots are a series of stacked platforms with actuators in between the platforms, as well as sensors that help each robot figure out where its components are located. “The team is working on algorithms for software so that the robots could choose how many platforms to stack and the right tool for the task at hand,” NASA officials said in the statement.
Made in Space, developer of technologies for manufacturing in space, will test its Archinaut One spacecraft with the help of $73.7 million in NASA funding. The craft will 3D print two 32-foot-long beams in Earth orbit, one on either side of the spacecraft, which will then unfurl solar arrays that can generate five times more power than traditional panels used by similar-sized spacecraft.
As NASA anticipates putting humans on the Moon by 2024, the agency hopes to develop a manufacturing capability on the lunar surface, according to Space.com. “This is how we see in-space manufacturing moving forward,” said Raymond Clinton, NASA associate director of science and technology. “And as the agency has said, we are going to the surface of the moon to demonstrate the technologies we will need when we go to Mars. That is the next step.”
California-based Offworld, a company developing smart robots to aid in the human settlement of space, has begun deploying its robots in mines, construction sites, tunnels and other infrastructure projects on Earth to provide insight into how the hardware operates in different environments, CEO Jim Keravala has told Space.com.
It is too early to say when Offworld’s robots will be ready to leave the planet, Keravala said, but he would be pleased if the company’s robots could assist NASA’s astronauts when they land on the surface of the Moon, a mission scheduled for 2024. “At some point in time — I hope it’s before we have our first woman and man on the surface — we will be deploying our lunar variants to the lunar surface.”
Offworld’s “Master Plan” describes the use of smart robots, capable of machine learning, to do the heavy work of readying settlements for humans.
The first thing on Offworld’s agenda is to extract water ice for applications from producing drinking water for humans to making rocket fuel.“They operate in swarms, collaborating together, making decisions on their own,” Keravala said. “They can sense where the minerals and ore exist …. and act accordingly.”more “Offworld’s Vision for Smart Robots in Space Settlement”
NASA has announced its intention to send a mobile robot, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the Moon’s southern pole to identify the location and concentration of water ice in the region.
“The key to living on the Moon is water — the same as here on Earth,” said Daniel Andrews, project manager of the VIPER mission, reports Forbes. “Since the confirmation of lunar water-ice ten years ago, the question now is if the Moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world.”
Moon water also would make Mars missions more affordable, Mars enthusiasts contend.“Creating space fuel depots would allow spacecraft to travel much farther and allow missions and satellites to sustain operations,” says Karen Panetta, IEEE Fellow, Dean for Graduate Education, Tufts University. “Rather than transporting water into space in heavy loads on rockets, the goal is to extract it (mine it) from the moon and asteroids.” more “VIPER Robot to Locate Water Resources on Moon”
Caterpillar Inc., the manufacturer of bright yellow mining trucks, bulldozers, and graders, has pioneered self-driving, remote-controlled mining equipment on Earth. Some of that technology may find a home on the Moon, reports CNBC.
The company’s R&D autonomous-vehicle R&D efforts data back to 1985. By the 1990s, Caterpillar had two autonomous hauling trucks running at a Texas quarry. The industry wasn’t ready for autonomy at the time, but Caterpillar stuck to its strategy. Its patience paid off. Today, Zion Market Research indicates that the global mining automation market will double to more than $6 billion in 2025. Writes CNBC:
Caterpillar is leading the autonomy revolution with both its vehicles and operational software. “We now have seven customers and we’re on 11 different sites,” Johnson said, “mining oil sands, iron ore, copper and gold and soon coal.” Cat has deployed 220 of its own trucks, both brand-new autonomous vehicles — costing from $3.5 million to $5 million each — and existing ones that have been retrofitted.
“We’re also converting competitors’ trucks,” Johnson said. “Our solution needs to be interoperable. It’s a competitive decision we don’t take lightly, because we recognize there are other [autonomy] providers.”
The idea of extracting mineral resources and propelling them back to Earth is far-fetched. Likewise, the economics of manufacturing the equipment on Earth and transporting it to the Moon don’t look promising. The logistics still need to be worked out. But Caterpillar is in the game for the long haul. It waited years for a market to emerge for autonomous vehicles on Earth, and it’s willing to wait years for a market to materialize in space. In the meantime, it continues its research and sponsors NASA’s annual Robotic Mining Competition, in which more than 45 collegiate teams design and build remote-controlled mining robots to traverse a simulated Martian terrain.