Artemis 1 is powered down – and we’re one step closer to using lunar dirt to build in space

Credit: John Raoux

NASA just launched its first rocket Artemis programwhich will, among other things, conduct scientific experiments to produce metal on the moon.

In last years, a number of businesses and organizations have increased efforts to introduce technologies to the moon. But doing work in space is expensive. Sending just one kilogram of material to the moon can stand US$1.2 million (A$1.89 million).

What if we could save money by using resources that already exist? This process is called in-situ resource utilization, and it is exactly what astrometallurgy researchers are trying to achieve.

Why the moon?

The moon has amazing potential for future space exploration. Its gravity is only one-sixth as strong as Earth’s, making it much easier to fly things from the Moon into Earth’s orbit than fly them directly from Earth! And in an industry where every kilogram costs a fortune, the opportunity to save money is extremely attractive.

Although humans sought to produce oxygen and rocket fuel in space for decadesthe Artemis program marks the first time we have solid plans to build and use metal in space.

A number of companies are looking at extracting metals and oxygen from lunar dirt. At first it will be demonstrations, but eventually the lunar metal will be a viable option for construction in space.

As a researcher in this field, I expect that in about 10 to 20 years we will demonstrate the ability to extract metals from the moon and probably use them to construct large structures in space. So exactly what will we be able to extract? And how would we do it?

Artemis 1 is powered down – and we're one step closer to using lunar dirt to build in space

On a clear night, you can see two geological regions of the moon – the darker maria and the lighter highlands. Credit: Shutterstock

What’s out there?

There are two main geological regions on the Moon, both of which you can see on a clear night. The dark regions are called maria and have a higher concentration of iron and titanium. Light areas are called highlands (or terrae) and have more aluminum.

In general, dirt and rocks on the Moon contain silicon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, and manganese. That might sound like a mouthful, but there really isn’t much to choose from. There are some other trace elements, but dealing with those is a game for another day.

We know that metals like iron, aluminum and titanium are useful for construction. But what about the others?

Well, it turns out that when your options are limited (and the alternative is to spend a small fortune), scientists can get pretty creative. We can use silicon for production Solar Panels, which could be the primary source of electricity on the Moon. We could use magnesium, manganese and chromium to make metal alloys interesting featuresand sodium and potassium as coolants.

There are also studies focused on the use of reactive metals (aluminum, iron, magnesium, titanium, silicon, calcium) as a form of battery or “energy carrier“If we really needed to, we could even use them as a solid form rocket fuel.

So we have options when it comes to getting and using metals on the moon. But how do we get to them?

How would the extraction work?

Artemis 1 is powered down – and we're one step closer to using lunar dirt to build in space

Researchers at the University of Glasgow used an electrolysis process to extract a pile of metal (right) from simulated lunar debris (left). Credit: Beth Lomax/University of Glasgow

While the moon has metals in abundance, they are bound in rocks as oxides—metals and oxygen stuck together. This is where astrometallurgy comes in, which is simply the study of extracting metal from space rocks.

Metallurgists use various methods to separate metals and oxygen from rocks. Some of the more common extraction methods use chemicals such as hydrogen and carbon.

Some like “electrolytic separation” use clean electricitywhile new solutions include completely vaporizes the rocks make metal If you are interested in a complete overview of lunar astrometallurgy, you can read about it in one of my research papers.

Regardless of the method used, mining and processing metals in space presents many challenges.

Some challenges are obvious. The Moon’s relatively weak gravity means that traction is essentially nonexistent, and digging the ground like we do on Earth is out of the question. Researchers are working on these problems.

There is also a shortage of important resources such as water, which is often used for metallurgy on Earth.

Other challenges are more specialized. For example, one lunar day is as long as 28 Earth days. So for two weeks you have enough access to the energy and heat of the Sun… but then you have two weeks of night.

Temperatures also fluctuate wildly, from 120℃ during the day to -180℃ at night. Some permanently shaded areas drop below -220℃! Even if the extraction and processing of resources were carried out remotely from Earth, many devices would not be able to withstand these conditions.

Artemis 1 lifted off spectacularly just after 17:00 AEDT on 16 November.

This brings us to the human factor: would there be humans themselves up there helping with all of this?

Probably not. Although we will send more people to the moon in the future, the danger of meteorite impacts, radiation load from the Sun and extreme temperatures this means that this work will have to be done remotely. But driving robots hundreds of thousands of kilometers away is also a challenge.

It’s not all bad news, though, because we can actually use some of these factors to our advantage.

The extreme vacuum of space can reduce the energy requirements of some processes because the vacuum helps substances vaporize at lower temperatures (which you can test by trying to boil water on a high mountain). A similar thing happens with molten rocks in space.

And while the lack of an atmosphere makes the Moon uninhabitable for humans, it also means more access to sunlight Solar Panels and direct solar heating.

While it may take a few more years to get there, we’re well on our way to making things out of it in space Moon metal. Astrometallurgists will be watching with great interest as future Artemis missions take off with the tools to make this possible.


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