Artemis 1 has been decommissioned – and we’re one step closer to using moon dust for construction in space

Artemis 1 has been decommissioned - and we're one step closer to using moon dust for construction in space

Credit: John Rowe

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

In the last years, number of companies Organizations have stepped up their efforts to create technologies on the moon. But work in outer space Expensive. Send only one kilogram of material to the Moon can cost US$1.2 million (AU$1.89 million).

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

Why the moon?

The Moon has amazing potential for future space exploration. Its gravity is one-sixth that of Earth’s, which makes it much easier to move things from the Moon to Earth’s orbit than to Earth’s orbit Fly them straight from the ground! And in an industry where each kilogram costs a fortune, the ability to save money is very attractive.

Although people were looking at making oxygen and Rocket fuel in space for decadesthe Artemis program marks the first time that we have robust plans to leverage and use it metal in the space.

number of companies Looking to extract minerals and oxygen from lunar dirt. At first these will be demonstrations, but eventually moon metal will be a viable option for building in space.

As a researcher in this field, I expect that in about 10 to 20 years from now we will have demonstrated the ability to extract minerals from the moon, and potentially use them to build large structures in space. Exactly so what Will we be able to extract? And how will we do that?

Artemis 1 has been decommissioned - and we're one step closer to using moon dust for construction in space

On a clear night, you can see two geological regions on the moon – the darker Maria and the lighter Highlands. Credit: Shutterstock

What’s there?

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

In general, dirt and rocks on the moon contain silicon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, and manganese. This may sound like a mouthful, but not much to choose from. There are some other trace elements, but dealing with them is talk for another day.

We know metals like iron, aluminum and titanium Useful for construction. But what about others?

Well, it turns out that when you have limited options (the alternative is to spend a small fortune), scientists can get pretty creative. We can use silicon to make Solar Panels, which could be a major source of electricity on the moon. We can use magnesium, manganese, and chromium to make metal alloys with it interesting propertiesSodium and potassium refrigerants.

There are also studies looking at the use of reactive metals (aluminium, iron, magnesium, titanium, silicon and calcium) as a form of battery or “energy carrierIf we really need to, we can even use them as a form of solids Rocket fuel.

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

How does extraction work?

Artemis 1 has been decommissioned - and we're one step closer to using moon dust for construction in space

Researchers at the University of Glasgow used an electrolytic separation process to extract a mound of metal (right) from simulated lunar dirt (left). Credit: Beth Lomax/University of Glasgow

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

Mineralogists use a variety of methods to separate minerals and oxygen from within rocks. Some of the most common extraction methods use chemicals such as hydrogen And the carbon.

some like “electrolytic separation” Use pure electricitywhile the most novel solutions include The rocks are completely evaporated to make metal. If you’re interested in the full set of lunar astrometallurgy, you can read about it at One of my research papers.

Regardless of the method used, extracting and processing minerals in space presents many challenges.

Some challenges are clear. The moon’s relatively weak gravity means that traction is essentially non-existent, and digging into the ground like we do on Earth isn’t an option. Researchers Works on These problems.

There is also a lack of important resources such as water, which is often used in mineralogy on Earth.

There are other, more specialized challenges. For example, a lunar day is 28 Earth days long. So for two weeks, you get access to the sun’s power and it’s pretty warm…but then you have two weeks of night.

Temperatures also fluctuate wildly, from 120°C during the day to -180°C at night. Some permanently shaded areas drop below -220 ℃! Even if the resources were remotely mined and processed from the ground, a lot of equipment would not withstand these conditions.

Artemis 1 blasted off spectacularly just after 5pm AEST on November 16th.

This brings us to the human factor: Will the people themselves be there to help with all of this?

Mostly not. Although we will send more people to the moon in the future, the dangers of meteor impacts exposed to radiation from the sun and extreme heat This means that work must be done remotely. But controlling robots hundreds of thousands of kilometers away is also a challenge.

However, it’s not all bad news, as we can actually use some of these factors to our advantage.

The extreme vacuum of space can reduce the energy requirements of some processes, as the vacuum helps vaporize materials at lower temperatures (which you can test by trying to boil water On a tall mountain). Something similar happens with molten rocks in space.

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

Although it may take a few more years to get there, we’re well on our way to making things in space out of the moon metal. Astronomers will be looking intently as future Artemis missions launch with the tools to make this happen.

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