With the prospect of living in an age where one can stay in human colonies on the moon, it seems economically feasible to excavate minerals and metal from the lunar surface rather than shipping them from Earth. And to make that happen, NASA has granted $500,000 funding to the University of Arizona for a new project to advance space-mining methods that will use mining robots.
The project headed by a group of academics from the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering focuses on enhancing space mining technologies using swarms of autonomous robots. The University of Arizona was eligible for the funding because it is a Hispanic Serving Institution, which is a designation given by the US Department of Education to colleges and universities with a Hispanic student population of 25% or more of total undergraduate enrollment.
Backed by the Giant Impact Hypothesis, since the two celestial bodies were likely to have been one in the past, the team believes rare earth metals, titanium, gold, helium-3, and platinum may all be found under the Moon’s surface.
Mining under the Moon’s surface might significantly minimize the need for future lunar outposts to rely on resources transported from Earth. Rare earth metals might be used to make medical equipment and cellphones, while helium-3 could be used to power nuclear power plants in the future.
While on Earth, miners must dig into rock to recover the core contained in it, lunar mining has its own set of challenges that needs to be tackled. Moe Momayez, interim head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering and the David & Edith Lowell Chair in Mining and Geological Engineering has developed an electrochemical process to drill through rock five times faster than any other method — a process which will need further tuning on lunar lands.
Moe, who also serves as the David & Edith Lowell Chair in Mining and Geological Engineering, explains that we can put a limitless amount of power at shattering rocks on Earth, but on the Moon, they have to be a lot more cautious. For instance, to shatter rocks, we need a lot of water and oxygen, which we won’t have on the Moon. As a result, we require new procedures and approaches. Blasting is the most effective technique to break rocks on Earth, yet no one has ever fired off an explosion on the Moon. Moe adds, “We’ll have to go step by step and solve these challenges.”
One of the “new processes” being investigated by the researchers is a collaborative robot swarm driven by the Human and Explainable Autonomous Robotic System (HEART) – before launching them into space. This will not only train robots to collaborate on mining, excavation, and construction but will also allow the robots to enhance their cooperation abilities over time.
The researchers believe that, in the future, the robots will be able to function in a completely autonomous swarm and help with mining resources and constructing basic buildings without the need for orders from Earth. While the team believes that people are an important part of space exploration, they believe that these robot swarms might free up astronauts’ time so that they can focus on other aspects of the trip. “The goal is to have the robots build, put things up, and do all the filthy, boring, risky work so the astronauts can do the more exciting stuff,” associate Professor Jekan Thanga who developed the HEART system explains.
To demonstrate the notion, the team has turned to quick prototyping using 3D printing, building on Roger Cheng’s Sawppy, a low-cost open-source wheeled rover that is being used to test a number of sensors for their applicability in lunar mining.
The team from the University of Arizona isn’t the only one hoping to deploy mining robots to the Moon. Masten Systems, located in California, revealed in June that it was developing the ROCKET M Rocket Mining System, which employs an enclosed rocket engine and vacuum system to extract water ice from the lunar surface.
European scientists have unveiled plans to begin mining the moon as soon as 2025, by deploying a lander to mine and treat regolith for water, oxygen, metals, and Helium-3 isotope.
Further, Russia, India, and China have all expressed interest in mining Helium-3 from the Earth’s natural satellite.
According to Gerald Kulcinski, head of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, there is an estimated one million tonnes of helium-3 on the Moon, but only 25% of it could be transported to Earth.
This quantity alone is enough to fulfil the world’s present energy demands for at least two, and maybe as many as five centuries.
Meanwhile, Associate Professor Jekan and his students submitted concept ideas for a lunar ark packed with cryogenically frozen seeds, spores, sperm, and egg samples from millions of Earth species a few months ago. They proposed that the facility be erected inside existing subterranean caves on the moon and act as a type of backup copy of our planet’s biodiversity in the event of a global catastrophe.