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NASA Funds Research for Moon Infrastructure Construction

Researchers from the Colorado School of Mines, Missouri University of Science and Technology and Auburn University will develop construction technology and electronics for long-term colonies on the moon.

Astronaut on lunar (moon) landing mission. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.
For more than half a century since Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the lunar surface, scientists have dreamed of creating research communities on the moon for further study. There’s just one major problem: Much of the tech required to live and work there for long periods has yet to be developed.

Noting the need for infrastructure to sustain long-term lunar missions, NASA recently announced up to $6 million in grant funding for research efforts at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Auburn University in Alabama and the Colorado School of Mines to develop tools and methods for lunar mining, autonomous construction to build landing pads and electronics that can withstand extreme temperatures.

According to NASA, the research will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the moon. The announcement last month said universities were chosen under the Lunar Surface Technology Research (LuSTR) initiative to “support groundbreaking research in advanced space technology.”

"Creating the technologies we need to explore the moon requires leveraging expertise from and partnering with academia and industry alike," Prasun Desai, deputy associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a public statement. "These projects show the integral role that universities will play in building humanity's sustainable presence on the moon."

Lunar Resource Extraction

Missouri University of Science and Technology's Leslie Gertsch, professor of geological engineering, said that for astronauts to maintain a sustainable presence on the moon, scientists will need building materials made onsite in order to avoid the expenses of transporting them.

To make long-term missions more feasible, researchers led by Gertsch seek to develop electromagnetic and magnetic resource extraction techniques to separate lunar minerals like calcium, aluminum and magnesium needed for manufacturing.

“This project will combine two well-understood processes — electrostatic sieving and magnetic separation — to collect the anorthite grains,” Gertsch said in an email to Government Technology. “Specifically, we will build scaled-down devices for each of the two processes and test them separately, in atmosphere and vacuum, under cold and hot temperatures, on materials that simulate the makeup of various lunar soils.

“When we sufficiently understand the process constraints as they are likely to exist on the moon, we will combine the devices into a complete system and test it in its entirety,” she continued. “We expect [our] final brass board system to be able to process 3 kilograms per hour — outputting mineral grains between 20 and 200 microns across that exceed 70 percent anorthite by mass.”

Autonomous Construction

To ensure a safe landing for astronauts, the Colorado School of Mines will develop autonomous technology for rovers to assist in constructing landing pads before they arrive on the moon.

Chris Dreyer, the team’s principal investigator, said researchers will build an autonomous robotic site preparation system that can clear, level and compact an area of lunar surface for construction.

“The natural lunar surface is pockmarked by craters and boulders that are hazards to safely landing on the lunar surface. To safely deliver humans to the surface of the moon, landing pads must be constructed ahead of the first landing,” he said.

Dreyer said his team will utilize recent advancements in autonomous technology, as well as scientists’ growing understanding of how regolith mechanics — the movement of loose material over a sheet of solid rock — work. The team will be joined by researchers from Michigan Tech, Lunar Outpost and Bechtel Corporation.

“There’s already a lot of terrestrial experience on autonomous robotics, which we’re going to draw upon for this project,” he said.

Extreme Electronics

One of the biggest obstacles to space exploration is extreme temperatures that can render various types of technology useless.

Without an atmosphere, NASA researchers say, lunar night temperatures often plummet to hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit below zero. What's more, the lunar terrain includes permanently shadowed regions never touched by sunlight.

Researchers at Auburn University, led by principal investigator Michael Hamilton, will design electronics to be reliable in extreme conditions such as these. The team is already exploring possibilities for how those electronics will work in the years ahead, according to an email from a university spokesman.

“The surface of the moon can reach -415 degrees in specific locations. This is not the best environment for some electronic devices. To keep them warm, one approach is the utilization of heaters, but size and expense create difficulties,” a university spokesman told Government Technology. “To find an alternative to this problem, the proposal is to develop electric devices/components that have the capability of functioning over a wide temperature range, and not rely on warming devices, for future lunar missions.”

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.
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