New Space and Tech

Wanted: Lunar Proving Grounds – Testing Technologies for the Moon

By Leonard David
June 29, 2023
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Wanted: Lunar Proving Grounds – Testing Technologies for the Moon
What equipment can work well while withstanding the tough lunar environment? Shown here is technology that has potential for fabricating structures on the Moon utilizing local materials for construction purposes. Image credit: Contour Crafting and University of Southern California.

While the Artemis Program’s effort to return to the Moon is indeed one giant leap for the United States to regain a foothold there, much work lies ahead before anyone can sustain living and work-a-day activities within the harsh and stark lunar environment.

NASA is pressing forward on creating public-private partnerships for companies — large and small — to develop ways to ace out hardware bugs, not only here on Earth, but also in real-time on the Moon. An important next step for getting hardware to run in tip-top shape on the Moon is establishing a pilot program to assess what technologies work best once down and dirty on the lunar terrain.

NASA is identifying technology gaps that could be bridged by innovative companies with fresh ideas.

Generation shift

A record attendance of nearly 250 people took part in the 23rd meeting of the Space Resources Roundtable at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado held June 6 through 9, indicating a skyrocketing increase in interest in finding ways to access and make use of the raw materials found on the Moon and elsewhere in space.

“I’m seeing a generation shift,” Robert Mueller, a senior technologist at NASA and the co-founder of the space agency’s Swamp Works lab at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, told SpaceRef. “A lot more younger people; increasing numbers of startup companies; and NASA collaborating with universities, small firms, and other government agencies.”

Mueller told SpaceRef that NASA has been putting together a “gap analysis database,” one that has been spurred by the agency recently blueprinting the need-to-haves to attain its Moon-to-Mars objectives. “I’ve never seen NASA as organized as they are now,” he said.

At the heart of that gap analysis is a push to identify the technology readiness levels (TRL) of equipment built to fly to the Moon. TRL is a measurement system used to gauge the maturity level of a technology.

What’s near-at-hand, Mueller said, is a priority listing of what technology gaps need early attention.

Verify and validate

Taking a hard look at determining what existing facilities may be used for Earth-based testing of moon-bound equipment is the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium. That consortium is hosted by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

In July at APL, experts will look at prospects for a single location — or perhaps a network of locations — where organizations can verify and validate their technologies in relevant environments to help ready that equipment for the Moon’s surface. That meeting is intended to help unify lunar technology testing facilities, Jodi Berdis, APL’s consortium lead, said during a presentation at the Space Resources Roundtable.

Destination désir

Progress is definitely being made in trying out varying lunar resource utilization techniques, Missouri University of Science and Technology geological engineer Leslie Gertsch told SpaceRef. Researchers are now using different pieces of technology for made-on-the-Moon production, she said, to transform lunar regolith into hydrogen and oxygen feedstocks.

“There are a lot more in-depth results being reported, and a lot less arm-waving,” Gertsch said, regarding the talks and papers given at the recent Colorado School of Mines meeting on space resources.

“But we have to get up there and muck around,” she added. “We can’t just check it all out down here first. We’re starting to gain understanding of the processes” for extracting and making use of what the Moon has to offer.

NASA senior technologist Rob Mueller talks with Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin about the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR) that was developed at the Kennedy Space Center Swamp Works. Image credit: NASA/John Smegelsky.

But there’s still need to push for a better understanding of what’s available on the Moon in the first place, said Gertsch. At the moment, the “destination désir” is the south pole of the Moon, where promising water resources lurk in craters that haven’t seen the kiss of warming sunlight for millions, even billions of years. 

“Even if those permanently shadowed regions are bone dry, there is still hydrogen and oxygen in the regolith” ripe for processing, Gertsch told SpaceRef.

On-location lunar testing

The idea of “pilot programs” to install test hardware on the Moon is coming more and more into fruition, said Gerald (Jerry) Sanders, lead for NASA’s In-Space Resource Utilization, Capability Leadership Team at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

“We start with ground development,” Sanders said, “like things we can do in big vacuum chambers. And that gives us a good deal of information, but then [we] transition from Earth to space to do technology demonstrations,” he told SpaceRef.

What NASA planners foresee is taking certain critical hardware elements to the Moon and observing how they interface with the lunar environment: the regolith, the radiation, the charged particles, the one-sixth gravity, Sanders said. “Once we feel comfortable that we’ve done that in the actual environment, [we] then move to the next stage.”

That next stage would build on what has already been learned to fabricate excavators, processing equipment, and also how to separate products, like oxygen and water for storage, Sanders added.

Overall, Sanders said its key to install hardware on the Moon at a scale not too big from a mass and cost perspective, “but not too small that you have to redesign everything to go to the next step. The idea is that we have to crawl and walk before we run,” to reach the objective of placing on the Moon long-lasting and productive equipment, Sanders said.

Sanders said that NASA feels reasonably confident about taking a given technology to the point where it can be flown to the Moon, compared and contrasted with how it operated on Earth and how it reacts on the Moon. In other words, taking small steps to assure sizable lunar resource machinery can work confidently and efficiently, and also yield high-value products.

This approach is amenable to incentivizing US industry partners and bolster the space agencies of other nations to be increasingly involved, Sanders said. “There are a lot of interesting discussions ahead.”

Leonard David

Leonard is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, Mars – Our Future on the Red Planet, and co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin of Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration - all published by the National Geographic Society.