Press Release

Research Partnership Seeks to Help NASA Live off the Land on Other Planets

By SpaceRef Editor
March 24, 2004
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Research Partnership Seeks to Help NASA Live off the Land on Other Planets

Sludge. That’s what most people think of when they envision the gray,
powdery soil — called regolith — covering the airless surface of the Moon.
Not Dr. Mike Duke. He sees gold.

Gold in the form of rocket propellant, power, and even breathable air – all
things that will be as valuable as gold to the first Moon-dwellers.

“As a young man, I wanted to go to the Moon,” says 68-year-old Duke, who was
one of the first geologists to study samples from Moon rocks collected
during the Apollo missions in the 1970s. I may be too old to make the trip
when Americans return to the Moon, but the research I am leading will help
the first lunar settlers take what’s there and make something practical.”

Duke is an expert in what space explorers call “in-situ resource
utilization” or ISRU – living off the land of an alien world. In 2003, he
was named director of the Center for Commercial Applications of Combustion
in Space Centers at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden — one of NASA’s
15 Research Partnership. He joined the partnership center in 2000 and uses
skills he honed during his 25-year career as a NASA geologist. In 1965, he
was a candidate for NASA’s Scientist Astronaut Program, made the finals, but
wasn’t selected to fly. He went on to help other space explorers, from 1976
until 1990 as the director of the Solar System Exploration Division and from
1990 to 1995 as the chief scientist for the Human Exploration Program – both
at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“We can’t take everything to the Moon or Mars with us,” Duke says. “Today,
it would take about 100,000 dollars to get a couple pounds of material moved
from Earth to the Moon. So making propellant on the Moon would make trips
back to Earth or on to Mars less expensive.”

Before you can process the lunar soil and turn it into rocket propellant or
other useful materials, you have to figure out a way to mine it. For four
years, Duke and a team of graduate students have been working on a robotic
excavator. They built a prototype that weighs around a hundred pounds and
has a chassis similar to the NASA rovers — Spirit and Opportunity – on Mars
now. An arm-like boom extends from the vehicle’s front end. It sports a
wheel of buckets that scoop up soil. The dirt falls out of the buckets and
into a conveyer system that takes it up the side of the boom. The arm moves
from side to side and excavates a swath of dirt one and a half feet wide,
the width of the excavator.

The current model can dig up several hundred pounds of dirt in an hour, but
the team is working to increase the excavation rate. They also are designing
a system to shoot the dirt from the excavator to a “lunar dump truck.” The
truck would carry the soil to a processing facility to extract hydrogen – a
component of the fuel that powers the Space Shuttle and could fuel a lunar

Duke and his students also have completed a model that identifies lunar
resources and their potential uses. The team even examined how a company
could make money on the Moon, and came up with a scenario for a “space
filling station” — where in-space tugs would be loaded with lunar-made
propellants and used to boost communications satellites to high orbits.

Why is Duke concerned with space business ventures? Collaborating with
industry to explore the solar system is one of the goals of the Research
Partnership Centers managed by the Space Partnership Development Program at
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for NASA’s Office
of Biological and Physical Research, Washington.

“NASA’s Research Partnership Centers bring together industry, academia and
government to advance exploration in space,” says Duke. “These
collaborations are an effective way to create new technologies at lower

One of the aspects Duke most enjoys about his job is creating new
opportunities for students to conduct original research that will help
advance space exploration.

“I studied geology at Caltech because I loved California’s mountains and
deserts,” recalls Duke, a Los Angeles native who earned his doctorate degree
in 1963 from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “But the
university was a hotbed for planetary science, and my professors inspired me
to study the geology of meteorites and the Moon. I want my students to
become the next generation of scientists and engineers who take America to
the Moon and beyond.”

One recent project that students helped design was the water mist
investigation, conducted in space to examine how to fight fire with a
fog-like mist of water — instead of large amounts of water that can damage
computers and other equipment. The STS-107 Space Shuttle crew completed the
experiment during their January 2003 flight. Although the experiment
equipment was lost in the Columbia accident, the team received data from
video sent back to Earth during the mission. They are using the data to
design a space fire extinguisher for contained environments such as
spacecraft, space habitats and submarines.

For more information visit:

Center for Commercial Applications of Combustion in Space

Office of Biological and Physical Research

Space Partnership Development Program

SpaceRef staff editor.