Professor hopes key to deep-space exploration is the moon

This is a composite image of the lunar nearside taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in June 2009, note the presence of dark areas of maria on this side of the moon. Credit: NASA

The secret to deep-space exploration could be buried deep within the moon.

A University of Central Florida scientist is developing a process that could mine the of its ice, which could eventually open the way for rocket-fuel production on the .

That would make it more likely that rockets could take off from the moon with enough force to, for the first time, expand a vehicle's range.

"The cost of spaceflight is primarily driven by the launch of propellants into ," said UCF's Phil Metzger, who landed a six-month contract with United Launch Alliance to explore the potential. "If we could get those propellants from space, we could cut those costs."

But sending hardware to the moon might not be cost-efficient—especially as reusable launch vehicles such as those used by SpaceX and Blue Origin bring the price of launches down, said Jon Goff, who runs the Broomfield, Colo.-based robotics company Altius Space Machines.

"Once you get stuff launched from the moon, will it still always be cheaper than launching from Earth?" said Goff, whose company has worked with NASA and ULA. "That is an open question."

The benefits of the exploration could reduce the cost of significantly, ULA Chief Scientist Bernard Kutter said in a news release.

"Procuring propellant derived from the moon may be substantially less expensive than hauling the propellant out of Earth's deep-gravity well," he said. "This in turn could reduce the cost of space transportation by as much as a factor of five."

The moon mining is driven in part by ULA's 30-year vision, which foresees 1,000 people living and working in the space between Earth and the moon by 2046. That would require sustainable resources that could support teams near the moon and also provide a rest stop for those who plan to travel or explore deeper into space, Metzger said.

"It would be like a gas station along the way to keep it going," he said.

Financial details of ULA's deal with Metzger were not disclosed.

Efforts to mine the moon's ice provide a way for ULA to plant its flag in a new sector, hoping to remain competitive with SpaceX, Goff said. The Elon Musk-led company hit a major milestone Tuesday by launching its Falcon Heavy rocket, which employs reusable boosters, on its first test flight from Kennedy Space Center.

"In a world where SpaceX keeps succeeding, the next question should be, 'How do I compete?'" Goff said. "... This is them trying to copy what SpaceX has done and have an exciting goal and get people excited to work with them," he said.

Metzger's team is seeking a way to reach ice that scientists say is buried at the moon's poles. The initial thought is that drills could penetrate the moon, pump heat into it and collect vapor that comes from the ice chunks.

That vapor can then be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, two elements required in the production of rocket fuel.

Using lunar resources could also benefit Earth's environment.

"We have outgrown our globe and we are putting too much burden on the planet," Metzger said. "We are using up most affordable resources. The ultimate solution is to put the machinery of civilization into space."

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Feb 13, 2018
The Falcon Heavy can put ~53 metric tonnes of propellants (refined inexpensively on Earth) into LEO for roughly $90M. I just don't see how sourcing the raw materials from the moon, refining them, and transporting them all the way back to LEO could even be close to cost competitive with that. Keep in mind we want these materials in LEO to fuel our spacecraft, not in lunar orbit. Dr. Zubrin has written extensively about this.

How about we use SpaceX to take both people and propellant up to LEO for use with a nuclear-powered, reusable, interplanetary spacecraft capable of delta V sufficient for opposition-class missions to Mars, even if we choose mostly conjunction-class missions? By going much faster between Earth and Mars, the months our explorers save getting irradiated in interplanetary space can be spent working on the surface of Mars. It is possible that even one spacecraft like this could support a small, rotating permanent presence on Mars.

Feb 13, 2018
Before we go harrying off for yet another gimmick-ridden "castles-in-the-sky" scheme?

Could somebody, anybody, please show us any evidence of long-term human survival in low-to-zero gee environments, under constant heavy-particle radiation?

With what we know now. With the technology we have now. It would be reasonable to support orbital industrialization using robots and waldoes.

Once we have assembled/constructed a Space-based infrastructure? And someone has accumulated data for biological survival and reproduction past the Earth's magnetosphere? Verified, confirmed from multiple sources data.

Then we can encourage human colonization beyond the Earth.

I am of the opinion. That without major leaps inventing some way to artificially create and manipulate Gravity? Human habitation outside our biosphere will end in misery and failure.

And no! Neither centripetal nor centrifugal acceleration will substitute for gravitational attraction.

Feb 13, 2018
Neither centripetal nor centrifugal acceleration will substitute for gravitational attraction.

And this is based on . . . your uninformed opinion? You insist on proof that humans can survive in deep space before we are able to go there to gather that data, and at the same time assert that there is no substitute for gravity, with no data. Interesting dichotomy.

The galloping acceleration of genetic engineering, prosthetics, brain/computer interfaces and robotics indicates to me that it won't be Homo Sapiens that populates the greater solar system, but the next iteration of our species (Homo Technologis?).

Feb 13, 2018
rrwillsj, I would like to point out that radiation on Mars is considerably less than in interplanetary space. Even if Mars had no atmosphere or residual local magnetic fields, simply being on the surface cuts the radiation by half. While constructing a spacecraft surrounded by 6 feet of lead is impractical, it could be done for sleeping quarters and buildings on Mars if necessary, but I don't believe we would have to go nearly that far to protect our people. BTW, thick leaded glass windows may become the norm on Mars.

I agree it is possible that living in 0.38 g may cause problems, but I suspect they will primarily manifest themselves with folks returning from Mars to Earth. We humans are a resilient and clever bunch, so I expect we will find a way to make it work.

Feb 14, 2018
I notice that all of those who claim extra-terrestrial habitation is possible, are not the people whose experiences off-Earth, will be proving your guesses wrong.

If any of you were actually serious about colonization? It would take only a few satellite laboratories with biological specimens, orbiting outside the magnetosphere, to prove me wrong.

Feb 14, 2018
The Martian surface has about 1/3 the radiation as interplanetary space.

But once on Mars, we can take active steps to manage radiation. For example, Mars appears to have lots of sand. it would be a simple matter to pile sandbags around our habitats to reduce the radiation to near zero inside. Others favor caves and lava tubes. People would probably spend 1/2 to 3/4 of the day inside, so cut the radiation by that much more. We could also select areas on Mars with significant paleo-magnetism that would deflect more charged particle radiation.

Regarding living in 0.38 g, I have advocated for an experiment with two colonies of mice in satellite terrariums linked by long tethers to simulate 0.38 g. I can think of lots of ways to do this including sliding weights to simulate a range of low g environments.

Feb 24, 2018
Science has forgotten that in the month there are abundant all the necessary foods for the people who will work there. These black on the moon are fields with agricultural products and are waiting for our Earth to use it. It's cheaper to live in Sahara than in California! You can live there for two or three days, and these are low costs, and in California, it lasts a few dozen years.
Are these scientists aware of the possibilities of human beings?

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