Building Lunar Infrastructure: Wireless Charging

November 18, 2020

WiBotic makes wireless charging military and industrial drones and robots in punishing environments on Earth. Soon, as a participant in a $5.8 million contract with space robotics company Astrobotic, Bosch, and the University of Washington, the Seattle-based company will be creating wireless charging solutions for robots on the even more punishing environment of the Moon.

The wireless inductive technology will work according to the same physical principles as charging pads for phones, only on a bigger scale. It will eliminate the need for charging cables, a weak link for lunar vehicles on the harsh lunar surface, reports ZDNet.

“By removing dependencies to solar charging, a new wide range of opportunities for smaller and lighter systems becomes available for missions that were not within reach before — such as survival of lunar night missions,” says Cedric Corpa de la Fuente, electrical engineer for Planetary Mobility at Astrobotic.

Long term, WiBotic wants to become a player in creating electrical grids on the Moon.

“Our longer term vision is to pioneer a lunar wireless power grid to supply energy for a wide range of both manned and unmanned vehicles, irrespective of their individual battery types, voltages or required power levels,” says WiBotic CEO Ben Waters. “This is only the first step in creating a common infrastructure of wireless charging stations and Fleet Energy management software to be deployed across the surface of the moon.”

Boeing, General Atomics to Advance Work on Liquid Lasers

November 18, 2020
Artist’s conception of a laser weapon and beam director mounted on a truck. (Real lasers emit invisible infrared beams.) Image credit: General Atomics

The Pentagon began developing work on electrically powered solid-state laser weapons two decades ago. By 2013 the Navy was testing a 30-kilowatt fiber laser on a ship. Then focus shifted to fiber lasers in the 50- to 100-kilowatt class. Now aerospace giant Boeing has teamed with General Atomics to build lasers achieving the 250-kilowatt threshold needed to defend against nuclear missiles, reports IEEE Spectrum.

The design of high-energy solid-state lasers entails a tradeoff between size, weight and power, and the problem of dissipating heat. General Atomics had the idea of developing a liquid laser, considered crazy at the time, but DARPA funded it. Liquid lasers are similar to solid-state lasers but they use a cooling liquid that flows through channels integrated into the solid-state laser material. The trick was achieving a perfect match in the refractive index between the liquid and the solid material. more “Boeing, General Atomics to Advance Work on Liquid Lasers”

This Rock-Eating Bacteria Does Not Lose Its Appetite in Low-G

November 13, 2020

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

Said Cockell:

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.

Designing Lunar Dust Busters

November 12, 2020
Ejecta STORM sensor

Recognizing the Moon dust could be one of the biggest problems facing lunar colonists, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is conducting research in the Mojave Desert to find ways to cope with the ubiquitous substance.

Measuring dust ejecta. One project involves a sensor for  measuring the ejecta — gravel, small rocks, and lots of dust — that shoot out from the landing zone when a vehicle lands on the Moon. “This can cause widespread damage from sandblasting spacecraft surfaces and solar cells to actually striking and breaking optical sensors or other instruments, says Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida.

“Having ejecta sensor data from actual lunar missions can help us improve those recommendations and will also help us protect the new spacecraft we’re sending to the Moon and even spacecraft orbiting around it – all of which is important not just to the U.S. but to the international space community as well,” Metzger said in a NASA publication. “And then we can develop physics equations that are truly predictive to inform mitigation strategies.”

more “Designing Lunar Dust Busters”

Lunar Radiation: 200 Times Stronger than Earth’s

November 10, 2020
The Chang’e 4 robotic rover

Astronauts walking on the surface of the Moon will be exposed to radiation levels 200 times higher than that on Earth,

The first systematically documented measurements of radiation on the Moon were undertaken in January 2019 when China’s Chang’e 4 robotic spacecraft landed on the far side of the Moons, according to an article published in Science Advances. Different sources of lunar radiation include galactic cosmic rays, solar particle events, and neutrons and gamma rays from interactions between space radiation and the lunar soil.

“The radiation levels we measured on the Moon are about 200 times higher than on the surface of the Earth and 5 to 10 times higher than on a flight from New York to Frankfurt,” said Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber, a professor of physics at the University of Kiel in Germany and the corresponding author of the study. “Because astronauts would be exposed to these radiation levels longer than passengers or pilots on transatlantic flights, this is a considerable exposure.”

NASA scientists describe radiation as the “most menacing” of the five main hazards of human space flight, surpassing isolation and confinement, distance from Earth, lack of gravity, and hostile/closed environment.

Chronic exposure to galactic cosmic rays may induce cataracts, cancer or degenerative diseases of the central nervous systems or other organ systems, reports CNN in summarizing the article’s findings. Additionally, the study said, exposure to large solar-particle events without sufficient shielding may cause “severe acute effects.”

Astronauts living on the International Space Station for as long as a year reside within the Earth’s protective magnetic shield. They are exposed to ten times more radiation than what they would experience on Earth, but that’s a small dose compared to what astronauts would be subjected to on the surface of the Moon or in deep space.

Metalysis Announces Breakthrough in Extracting Oxygen from Lunar Rock

November 10, 2020
Schematic of an oxygen molecule

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.

Will the Outer Space Treaty Hinder Settlement on the Moon?

November 6, 2020

The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, contains language that could thwart colonization on the Moon, writes Maya Cohen, an associate at Balestriere Fariello with a background in international law, in the Above the Law blog. Article II states that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

The language is not not entirely clear. Writes Cohen:

What does “national appropriation” in the context of the moon mean? Does national appropriation apply to individuals and companies occupying parts of the moon or only to a nation claiming territory in space? Does appropriation by a company or an individual moving to the moon constitute national appropriation?

Based on commercial space industry practice, she suggests, the answer is no. It can be argued that private companies have been claiming territory in space for commercial satellites, with no objection from the international community. The legal question may not be settled definitively, however, until someone attempts to live or build on the Moon.

Luna Legal Lacuna: Property Rights

November 6, 2020

Taking note of the unexpected abundance of water on the Moon, some Americans have begun contemplating the idea of leaving planet Earth and moving to the Moon. Setting aside the economic and technological questions of whether that’s even possible, Maya Cohen asks if colonization would be legal.

The main treaty governing the space is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The relevant provision of the treaty is Article II, which states, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” It has been impossible in the past half century, she writes in Above the Law, to generate an international consensus to create new laws on the commercialization and private property in space and on the Moon. 

What, asks Cohen, does “national appropriation” in the context of the Moon even mean?

Does national appropriation apply to individuals and companies occupying parts of the moon or only to a nation claiming territory in space? Does appropriation by a company or an individual moving to the moon constitute national appropriation? Based on commercial space industry practice, the answer is simply, no. Private companies have been arguably claiming territory in space for commercial purposes for decades through satellites, without any objection from the international community.

more “Luna Legal Lacuna: Property Rights”

Satellite Constellations, the Kessler Effect, and Military Superiority

November 6, 2020
A satellite constellation — DARPA illustration

As the United States military machine becomes increasingly dependent upon constellations of satellites for its command, control and communications, potential adversaries such as China and Russia have become experimenting with methods to destroy or disable the satellites. Now U.S. strategists are sounding the alarm about anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs, reports GeekWire.

“We built [the command and control satellites] as if we were in a benign domain.” said Lt. Gen. John Shaw, commander of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Operations Command. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that space is becoming “a contested domain.”

Adding complexity to the strategic thinking about space is a potential phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Kessler syndrome. Donald J. Kessler wrote in 1979 how the density of objects in Low EarthOrbit could get high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade — creating debris that struck other objects, thus creating more debris. The movie “Gravity” was based on a scenario in which the Russians shot down a defunct satellite, creating a cloud of debris moving at 20,000 to 50,000 miles per hour. Apparently, military thinkers give such a scenario credence. more “Satellite Constellations, the Kessler Effect, and Military Superiority”

Coming Soon: the Cislunar Highway Patrol System

November 5, 2020

An important duty assumed by the embryonic U.S. Space Force will be tracking objects in cislunar space (the area between the Earth and Moon). The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate is now investigating technologies to undertake the task, reports Space News.

“It’s a brave new world for the [Department of Defense] to embark on,” said Capt. David Buehler, manager of the AFRL experiment named CHPS, for Cislunar Highway Patrol System. Said he:

“If we’re going to protect and defend, the Space Force is going to need to understand the environment, have space domain awareness capabilities to be able to know where everything is out there.”

Tracking objects in cislunar space presents significant technical challenges. One is estimating the trajectory objects that are subject to the gravity of both Earth and the Moon. Said Buehler: “As you go further and further beyond GEO, you start to have these weird, non-closed trajectories, they no longer look like orbits, they’re more open-ended trajectories.”

The distances are vaster than tracking objects in Earth orbit, and the brightness of the Moon creates problems for sensors. more “Coming Soon: the Cislunar Highway Patrol System”