Mining the Moon for Fun and Profit

“The Moon: Resources, Future Development, and Settlement” is quite a nifty tome of Moon knowledge compiled by Mssrs. David Schrunk, Burton Sharpe, Bonnie Cooper, and Madhu Thangavelu. It lays out a compelling case for conducting human (and robotic) operations on the Moon in the advancement of our society. The introduction gets right to the brass tacks, noting a number of ways in which our Moon offers opportunities as an arena for activity:

Opportunity The Cynical Response
-Proximity to Earth -We can’t get beyond LEO at the moment
-Availability of energy and material resources -There’s no infrastructure
-Gravity -Microgravity is “better”
-Protection from space hazards -Unique space hazards
-Science opportunities -Other locations offer “better” science opportunity
-Education -Kids have “better” things to study in school
-Commerce -There’re no “proven” profitable markets
-Earth benefits -Other locations offer more benefits
-International Cooperation -UN Black Helicopters on the Moon [;-)]
-Human survival -There are “better” ways to survive
-Exploration of space -There are “better” ways to explore

Please note that the cynical responses are mine, as I hear them all the time during outreach activities. The book goes a long way towards providing the knowledge to rebut those cynical responses, by outlining ways of approaching the problem, and provides a pooling of knowledge from prior work.

No Moon book is complete without a summary of the basics of Lunar origins and physical features, and the authors devote the first chapter to this topic. Next up is science opportunities, but also engineering challenges. The types of astronomy that could be conducted from the Moon, and strategies for doing so, as well as cosmic radiation, solar wind, and big honking particle accelerators in natural vacuum. The study of the maintenance staff will provide psychological, sociological and physiological data for analysis. On the challenge side are the issues of robotics, tele-operations, the challenge of adapting to the Moon’s chemistry in trying to live off the land, the challenge of dealing with emergencies, CELSS (Controlled Ecological Life-Support Systems), and mining and manufacturing in a new environment with none of the infrastructure that we take for granted down here on Earth.

Key to any future of humans on the Moon is an agressive campaign of mastering how to tap the resources of the Moon. The elements that form the unique mineralogy of the Moon, the regolith that is a treasure in its own right, water possibly at the poles (but certainly some form of elevated hydrogen levels), vacuum, mass/gravity, topography, sterility, low gravity, orbital mechanics, and the Lagrange points. One of the key tools that we will take with us will be robots, and the next chapter is devoted to them.

Once the groundwork is laid, we come to the chapter on “The first lunar base”. The site proposed is Mons Malapert (2E, 85.75S), the name the authors give to a tall feature located near Malapert crater on the Earth side of the South Pole. It’s tough to get a sense of the elevation from the images,so I pulled out my copy of “The Modern Moon” and looked up Ewen Whitaker’s 1954 oblique view map of the South Pole region found on page 127. If I’m reading it correctly, the feature they are talking about is identified as the Liebnitz plateau, a feature I noted as the spot I’d pick to go to to set up shop in my review of that book. The authors note that the peak of Mons Malapert may be visible from Shackleton crater, making it an ideal on-link to Earth for a NASA base there, as well as provisionable from a Malapert base. The “seed” of any operation there would likely be a Seleno-Lab, a self-contained full laboratory to study the local mineralogy and identify resource opportunities. The scaling up of operations will be accompanied by exploratory robots to better characterize the local terrain, and eventually circumpolar expeditions to start laying the ground work for future infrastructure development. One idea that I’m quite pleased to see included (because I’ve blogged about it previously somewhere on the internet) is the idea of multi-purpose power towers at high elevations at the South Pole region. The idea is that 1/6th gravity and no weather (as we understand it) allows for the construction of veeery tall structures. So even if the local topography eclipses the solar cells on the ground at some point during the Lunar ‘day’ (read: Month), the towers are tall enough to peek over the horizon (which is quite foreshortened on the Moon) and still get sunlight for power. Not just solar cell, but you could put solar mirrors on top to focus sunlight for high-temp industrial operations, as well as lightpipes on the side to pipe sunlight directly into the base. And then you even go so far as to put solar cells on the backsides of the the blinds that ‘turn off’ the lights in the base. The illustration also notes that one could mount power transmission equipment on the towers as well, to beam it to other locations right from the source. I really, really want to be the owner of the company that builds them.

Chapter seven gets into the idea of a circumferential Lunar utility infrastructure. While power needs will grow with development of more sophisticated Lunar base(s), the assistance of robots and an abundance of the raw materials needed to make basic solar cells (though perhaps not in the form that we’d like), means that it should not be too difficult to reach a point where the base(s) can start exporting energy to other locations. An L-1 station is an obvious choice, but also to remote operations around the pole within line-of-sight. The authors consider nuclear power, but concede that it’s really to unpalatable for our society to launch nuclear materials through the atmosphere (for non-military purposes, of course). By building circumferentially around the South Pole as opposed to heading right towards it, is that you provide more thorough coverage of the area for the ‘infilling’ that will occur. Particularly rich craters may (okay, will) be found on the other side of the pole, and having infrastructure nearby may prove crucial in exploiting them effectively. There’s also talk of flywheel farms, a cable car, and a railroad. Having a solid and sustainable infrastructure in place (primarily for the production of usable energy) is one of the key elements for the development of Lunar cities. Well, towns really, but there’s a lot of industrial opportunity up on the Moon waiting for us to tap it, and that’s going to take people. More and more all the time.

Chapter eight expands the concept to that of a planet Moon, where regular traffic in cislunar space has opened up the Moon like an eighth continent, to be put to good use by humanity and thank goodness there’re no natives to contend with this time around. The authors advocate a maglev system to replace the railroad, something I can heartily support after my ride to the airport on the maglev in Shanghai. Fast and smooooth. They even have a digital indicator in the cars showing the speed. I haven’t gone that fast on the ground since the TGV in France! Still, I think the first application of maglev (magnetic levitation – riding on air, or vacuum in the case of the Moon) is going to be for the export of materials to GEO for Solar Power Satellites. Ideas like bioquarantine labs, Hadron colliders, and Lunar tourism are explored (The Maglev would be perfect, allowing private companies to use the infrastructure to shuttle tourists around. Rapid prototyping, tethers, space elevators (the Moon/L-1 is seen by some as great practice for a terrestrial space elevator) are all touched upon.

Next up is Governance of the Moon, which rankles the Libertarian in me, but the main takeaway from the chapter that I got was that the Moon will be a great incubator for trying new forms of governance and interdependence amongst the bases.

Lastly, we have Endless Frontiers, and how the Moon can help serve as a staging and supply area for the expansion of our economic infrastructure beyond cislunar space. That is the main contribution that the Moon can serve in humanity’s efforts. The chapter reviews the main lithic features of the Solar system, but ultimately all of that is just a prelude to what could be greatest diaspora in human history. When the best and bravest amongst the best and bravest of humanity will take the first steps beyond the Solar system, and take the seed of life from Earth to the endless stars. Why should we not take our biosphere to where there is no life? Is that not a great contribution to the future of our universe?

I shouldn’t have said last up, because now that the chapters are finished we get to the many, many appendices. This is the meat of the book. The first section should definitely be read first to get a global overview of the opportunity, because the appendices are focused on the pieces that have to be put together to make it happen. I am learning an amazing amount of new information from these chapters. I mean, Lunar ilmenite as a potential semiconductor? Who’d a thunk it? Even the section on Lunar regolith had some new stuff, thanks to the work of Dr. Taylor at UTenn that is incorporated. To give you an idea, here’s the list of appendices:

-Robots on Planet Moon (this was a slow one for me)
-Lunar regolith properties
-Lunar soil simulants (a very useful appendix)
-In-situ resource utilization (ISRU)
-Proposed processes for lunar oxygen extraction
-Facilitating space commerce through a lunar economic development authority
-Quality standards for the lunar governance
-NASA and self-replicating systems: Implications for nanotechnology
-Human factors
-Maglev trains and mass drivers
-Development of the lunar economy
-Lunar mysteries
-Milestones of lunar development
-International Lunar Observatory/Association
-Cislunar orbital environment maintenance
-The Millenial Time Capsule and L-1 Artifacts Museum
-MALEO: Modular assembly in low Earth orbit
-Logistics for the Nomad Explorere assembly assist vehicle
-Beyond our first Moonbase: THe future of human presence on the Moon
-Lunar rock structures
-Rapid prototyping: Layered metals fabrication technology development for support of lunar exploration at NASA/MSFC.

Some of the appendices are material taken out of the main body of text in the first edition to make way for updates and changes to the overall form of the main section. The bibliography runs to 25 pages. This is a solid work and definitely deserves its “Best of the Moon 2007” in the Moonbase category. It’s tied with The Lunar Base Handbook for the number one Moonbase reference in the Lunar Library, with “Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century coming in a close second.

Assuredly, this one rates a Full Moon at perigee.

One thought on “Mining the Moon for Fun and Profit

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    The design of mining machine to do the process
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    come back to earth and in the middle of the way process the he3.

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