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06-19-2024

Turning moon soil and space debris into building materials

Imagine the moon as a center for soil manufacturing, construction, and even building human habitation. This concept, once relegated to science fiction, is now becoming a reality thanks to increased interest and investment in space exploration.

Researchers are working tirelessly to develop the necessary technologies to make the moon a viable home for humans.

Innovative solutions with moon soil

One significant challenge in developing lunar infrastructure on the moon is the need for building materials.

Transporting materials from Earth is costly and inefficient. This has led to research into utilizing raw materials found on the moon’s surface. However, processing these lunar resources requires a substantial amount of power.

A team of researchers from the University of Waterloo’s Laboratory for Emerging Energy Research (LEER) is tackling this issue.

They are exploring how to process lunar regolith, the moon’s top layer of soil and dust, into usable materials for life support, energy generation, and construction.

This includes using defunct satellite material as a fuel source when mixed with lunar regolith.

Harnessing the power of moon soil

“Lunar regolith contains lots of metallic dust embedded with oxygen,” explained Connor MacRobbie, a Ph.D. candidate supervised by professors Dr. John Wen and Dr. Jean-Pierre Hickey in Waterloo’s Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering.

“Because it already contains oxygen, we can utilize it, without the need for atmospheric oxygen, to produce thermal energy through a thermite reaction, which is particularly useful in space where oxygen is not readily available,” MacRobbie continued.

The LEER team conducted experiments using simulant “lunar” regolith synthesized and supplied by NASA.

They tested various fuel and oxidizer compositions and particle sizes to control the energy release rate of a space-based thermite reaction for heating or manufacturing purposes.

“The results demonstrate the viability of the moon’s topsoil to power lunar development, enabling humans to explore and inhabit the moon’s surface,” said Dr. John Wen, the director of LEER.

The team is now focused on improving the extraction of metals and other useful materials from the regolith and designing automated processes to support in-situ resource utilization and the circular space economy.

Addressing space debris on the Moon

Another significant threat to humanity’s future in space is the millions of bits of fast-moving debris between Earth and the moon’s orbits.

The European Space Agency (ESA) compares a collision with a one-centimeter particle of space debris traveling at 10km/s to a small car crashing at 40 km/h.

The LEER research team is addressing this problem by recycling defunct satellite material into a fuel source for space development.

“Defunct satellites have enormous potential value,” said MacRobbie. “They’re made up of many useful materials, including aluminum, which, when added to lunar regolith, can produce a thermite reaction and generate heat.”

Using the thermite reaction to repurpose salvaged space debris also provides materials for maintaining and developing solar satellite systems in space, ensuring power for further space exploration.

Turning science fiction into reality

“Our research is turning science fiction into reality,” said MacRobbie. “Our goal is to help build the infrastructure and technology that will allow sustainable human settlement on the moon—and beyond.”

This important work by the LEER team represents a significant step toward making the moon a sustainable hub for human life and industry.

Through innovative use of lunar resources and recycling space debris, they are paving the way for humanity’s future in space.

More about moon soil (lunar regolith)

Beyond the current research, lunar regolith offers several exciting possibilities for advancing space exploration.

For instance, its use in 3D printing technology could revolutionize construction on the moon. By using regolith as a raw material for 3D printers, astronauts could fabricate complex structures and components on-site, drastically reducing reliance on Earth-supplied resources.

Moreover, lunar soil might play a crucial role in future Mars missions. Techniques developed for processing regolith on the moon could be adapted for similar applications on Mars, aiding in building infrastructure and supporting life on the Red Planet.

Lunar regolith could also contribute to scientific research, providing insights into the moon’s history and the broader solar system. Its unique composition might reveal clues about the early solar system’s formation and evolution.

Lastly, leveraging lunar resources could drive international cooperation in space exploration, uniting countries and space agencies in joint missions to harness and utilize extraterrestrial materials effectively.

Two studies were published by the International Astronautical Federation.

The first can be found here…

The second can be found here…

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