Lunar Exploration Workshop Features Kennedy Engineers, Researchers
Engineers and researchers from Kennedy Space Center and other organizations and companies around the country recently discussed innovative ideas on the best ways to mine for resources on the moon and the steps necessary to achieve them.
They heard from subject-matter experts on more than 50 related topics and exchanged information during the Third International Workshop for Lunar Superconductor Applications, held April 9-10, and a LunarCubes Briefing, held April 11, in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
Workshop organizers Bonnie Dubrow and Russell Cox, both with Flexure Engineering in College Park, Md., welcomed participants in the room and many others participating on the Web from other locations.
“During the next three days you will be listening to some of the leaders, the scientists and engineers, who are actually paving the way for what’s new in the world,” Dubrow said.
Cox told attendees that there’s been more interest in the moon in the last 10 years than any time since the 1960s. He said there are a lot of maturing pieces of technology and mission concepts coming about.
“Superconductor technology is going to be one of the most important technologies of lunar exploration,” Cox said. “It is going to open up the frontier in a way that has never before been possible.
“We are at the beginning of a new renaissance in space. We are moving from ‘gee could we do that’ into ‘how are we going to do that.’”
Pat Simpkins, director of Engineering and Technology at Kennedy, updated the group on activities at the center. “Kennedy is up to so much more than launching rockets,” Simpkins said. “We definitely are not out of business.”
His presentation focused on the work the center is doing to support NASA’s priorities, including the Launch Services, Commercial Crew, the Ground Systems Development and Operations programs, as well as the Space Launch System, the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle and Advanced Exploration Systems.
While NASA announced it will send humans to an asteroid by as early as 2021, and step up efforts to improve detection and characterization of asteroids, other technologies are being developed to explore the moon.
“The future of NASA and Kennedy is bright,” Simpkins said.
Bill Larson, retired NASA In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) project manager, shared information about space resources and the major areas of ISRU when considering developing a base on the moon. These include resource characterization, mission consumable production, civil engineering and surface construction, manufacturing and repair, energy generation, and storage and transfer.
Larson said NASA’s Aerospace Exploration Systems Program is moving forward with the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) lunar ice prospector that would, in the future, explore the moon. RESOLVE prototypes have been tested near the volcanic area of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, a rocky, desolate area that mimics the moon’s surface.
ISRU is important, Larson said, because it can help to reduce mass and cost, expand human presence in space, solve terrestrial challenges, enable space commercialization, and provide risk reduction and flexibility.
Larson said no single process for technology is the best. Development of two or more approaches is most likely to ensure success.
“We are trying to work on the core technologies that will allow us to get to any destination that is selected,” Larson said. “In 2020, we hope to have an ISRU demonstration payload on Mars that supports the current human design reference mission. However, if RESOLVE hits the mother load of water on the moon, then maybe that changes our thoughts on a Mars exploration architecture.”
Rob Mueller, senior technologist in the Surface Systems Office of Kennedy’s Engineering and Technology Directorate, presented “Mining Resources in the Moon’s Permanently Shadowed Craters.”
Mueller said one of NASA’s goals is to extend and sustain human activity across the solar system. Some of the key technologies needed to achieve this include robotics and automation, power systems, habitation life support, and space resource utilization.
“We know there’s water out there in the solar system and we know it’s vastly more water than we have here on Earth,” Mueller said. “You could argue that Earth is resource-constrained and we’re starting to feel the effects.”
During the last 10 years, missions to the moon have revealed locations where ice water could be located beneath the surface. The moon is not flat, but has permanently shadowed craters at the north and south poles that hold ice water and volatiles.
“The moon’s Shackleton crater at the South Pole is a very compelling target,” Mueller said. “Researchers think that up to 22 percent of the surface content could be water ice.”
Extreme access will be required on these missions into the permanently shadowed regions of the moon, Mueller said. There are hundreds of small craters at the moon’s North Pole, and there is data that shows they might contain up to 600 million metric tons of water ice.
Mueller said space mining requires access, resource excavation, extraction, and then some level of processing.
“Solar system resource utilization is the key to expanding civilization off Earth,” Mueller said.
“The solar system has vast amounts of resources, but there’s a catch. They must be acquired and processed to be useful. Our job is to figure out how to do that.
“Asteroids have huge amounts of resources in the Asteroid Belt and so do near-Earth asteroids. The lunar poles also are showing evidence of volatiles as is Mars,” Mueller added. “We need to develop the technologies to extract these resources, but accessing the permanently shadowed regions of the craters is going to be hard and harsh.”
“How very fortunate it is that we have all of this amazing technology,” Dubrow said.
Other presentations from Kennedy’s Engineering and Technology Directorate included “Cryogenics in Space” from cryogenic engineer William Notardonato, and “Cryogenics and Energy at the Extremes,” by James Fesmire, senior engineer and co-founder of Kennedy’s Cryogenics Testbed Laboratory. A second presentation from Larson focused on “RESOLVE: NASA’s Lunar Ice Prospector.”
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center