ground zero to do things differently

The Apollo project was a camping trip compared to what Australia and NASA have planned for a return to the moon.

“We use the term living off the land,” NASA Johnson Space Center’s Gerald Sanders tells AAP.

NASA plans to understand how to use resources where missions land, rather than blowing it all off and returning it.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to walk on the moon, and on the last Apollo mission in 1972, a crew stayed for more than three days.

“We would like to go there for a longer period of time,” says Sanders.

“You start by taking small habitats to live in as you build your larger infrastructure for the next generation,” he says.

He is head of “in-situ resource utilization”, which is about using resources found on other planets and moons and leaving no mess behind.

“We’re talking about extracting metals, silicon and ceramics to make spare parts, eventually maybe the landing pads and roads to protect the hardware.”

The movie The Martian, in which actor Matt Damon grows potatoes on Mars, is a perfect example of this, says Sanders.

“He had an oxygenator in that movie, and NASA has flown similar technology on the Perseverance rover that’s on Mars right now.”

The car-sized rover “Percy” is also supported by a small helicopter named Ingenuity in a search for signs of past microbial life, rock samples, and preparations for future human research.

Getting ready for the long haul also means rethinking what a lunar mission might require, because every kilogram landed on the lunar surface takes 200 kilograms on the launch pad to get there.

“If I don’t have to carry anything, then my launch vehicle gets smaller or I can fill my launch vehicle with more important things than a tank of water or oxygen or a block of metal that I’m going to make into something.” says Mr. Sanders.

“We’re starting small. We’ll do basic tests on our ideas of how you might move regolith — a fancy term for the Earth on the moon.”

Technologies are being developed to turn regolith into metals, with oxygen – not carbon dioxide – as a by-product.

Mr. Sanders’ counterpart at CSIRO is Dr. Jonathon Ralston, who leads an Australian team to develop technologies needed by NASA.

“There’s no carbon on the moon, there’s no water on the moon, and energy is hard,” says Dr. Ralston to AAP.

“The first step is to understand what the resource is so we can begin to understand how to put it to good use.

“It has to be incredibly green right from the start,” says Dr. Ralston.

“It’s about using the materials where you find them and doing it in a closed way,” he said.

For example, there are processes that use water or acids to leach or extract certain metals from lunar regolith, but they must be made and cannot be drained on the moon.

Instead, everything should be reused and recycled.

“That circular economy is ingrained in everything we do,” says Sanders.

The stakes are high, as producing just one kilogram of a resource such as water, oxygen or a building material on the moon could save tens of thousands of dollars.

Usually, a pristine environment is needed to develop satellites, rovers or other space equipment, but researchers are faced with a different situation.

Testing is done in so-called “dirty vacuum chambers”, including at the University of Adelaide.

“They simulate the harsh vacuum you find on the moon,” explains Dr Ralston.

“We breathe oxygen all the time, and it’s incredibly hard to imagine what a harsh vacuum is like and what that could do to your electronics and all your systems.”

He says regolith is a great potential tool for generating critical life support, but it also poses a huge challenge because it is abrasive and sticks to all mechanical parts.

“The material is both friend and foe,” says Dr Ralston.

“We’re going from a short-term mission to how would we start building sustained operations,” he said.

This means that all equipment must be very robust and low maintenance.

Robots controlled remotely from Earth can take care of the site using sensing and control technology designed for mining.

“The moon is an extremely ultra-distant version,” says Dr Ralston.

Off-Earth mining was a hot topic at the recent World Mining Congress, held in Australia for the first time since the international forum began in the 1950s.

Prospecting, extraction, remote operations and resource production were debated as the aerospace and mining industries pushed for a technology transfer between the two environments.

“We’ve been hearing here for the past few days about all the challenges terrestrial miners face: automation, electrification, decarbonisation, getting people out of hazardous environments,” says Sanders.

“Learning how to do these things on the moon and on Mars means there’s a potential spin back to Earth.”

The moon could be ground zero to do things differently, with excavation possibly starting in a decade.

The federal government supports a range of local space innovations, including innovations that can help address climate change.

The Australian Space Agency on Wednesday awarded $5.2 million to the robotics and artificial intelligence startup Advanced Navigation under its Moon to Mars grant program.

“It represents a critical milestone in the company’s trajectory as we begin to be one of the first Australian technologies to reach the moon,” said CEO and co-founder Xavier Orr.

Enrico Palermo, head of the space agency, says 10 projects will share in nearly $40 million under the demonstrator program, which will position local space companies to be part of future space missions.

“These space projects will have a major impact, including on NASA’s Artemis program,” says Palermo.

Artemis is the name of NASA’s program to return astronauts to the lunar surface as part of a giant leap to get humans to Mars.

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