The space agency is studying moon-based robots and additive manufacturing to build a pipeline that transports oxygen from an extraction site to a lunar base.
NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is funding a nine-month feasibility study to build a pipeline that will transport gaseous oxygen from an extraction site to a proposed future lunar base.
Lunar Resources, Inc., a Houston-based company focused on large-scale industrialization of space, is teaming up with Wood, a consulting and engineering in Aberdeen, Scotland to study the Lunar South Pole Oxygen Pipeline (LSPoP), a pipeline at the south pole of the Moon.
“It is imperative for America to develop industrial infrastructure on the Moon to enable a permanent lunar presence. We are thrilled to team with Wood on the development of the LSPoP, [which] brings a premiere team to design revolutionary lunar infrastructure”, said Elliot Carol, CEO of Lunar Resources.
Phase 1 Funding
The research is part of the NAIC phase one funding selection and is aimed at furthering the Artemis program and its goal of developing a permanent human presence on the Moon. A permanent presence is dependent on the ability to use in-situ resources because ferrying these resources from Earth would be far too expensive and dangerous. The extraction of oxygen on the Moon is essential for lunar operations. However, the transportation of oxygen is a major challenge.
Nasa’s current research efforts for in-situ oxygen extraction is focused on “bottling” the oxygen in compressed gas tanks or to liquefy and store it in dewars, which are insulated containers used for storing cryogens. Either approach requires moving tanks or dewars to various facilities for use. The process of moving this oxygen on rovers could be more energy intensive than the extraction process itself and could be the most expensive aspect of obtaining in-situ oxygen for use on the Moon.
“We estimate that the use of robotic rovers to transport gaseous oxygen in gas tanks would use more energy to transport the oxygen than extracting it,” said Dr. Peter Curreri, Lunar Resources Chief Scientist.
The oxygen will be essential to supply human habitats, rovers and other life support systems with a constant supply of high purity oxygen. It will also be used as an oxidizer for launch vehicles departing the Moon. Oxygen extraction technologies are planned to be demonstrated at large scale on the Moon as early as 2024 and could provide direct support to Artemis astronauts as early as 2026.
Extracting oxygen ice and other lunar materials is one thing. Transporting it around a rock floating in space with no gravity or atmosphere is a much more complicated task.
For this design study, Lunar Resources and Wood will do a system-level design study of LSPoP. They will explore the feasibility of building pipeline elements on the Moon with the metals found there, which will be extracted using a process called molten regolith electrolysis (MRE). Lunar regolith is the unconsolidated sand-like debris on the surface of the Moon. Full scale test systems of this process on Earth have successfully extracted high-purity iron, aluminum and silicon.
The pipeline will be built using regolith additive manufacturing, which leverages Lunar Resources PE3D additive manufacturing technology to fabricate vertical and horizontal structures from lunar regolith without binding material. The program uses the PE3D low-average source power capabilities to efficiency additively manufacture regolith into complex structures with high density, low power and no consumables.
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