Private companies want to mine the moon for water and a team at the University of Central Florida is helping them figure out just how to do that.
Planetary scientists are pretty confident there’s water on the moon and private companies like United Launch Alliance want to jump-start the mining process. Water is an important resource in space because its chemical composition can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, which could then be turned into rocket fuel.
Scientists believe there is lots of water trapped in the icy soil on the lunar surface but the challenge is figuring out the most efficient way to harvest it.
ULA is interested in finding a way to make fuel in space rather than haul it into orbit from the Earth. “Procuring propellant derived from the Moon may be substantially less expensive than hauling the propellant out of Earth’s deep gravity well,” said Bernard Kutter, ULA’s chief scientist. “This in turn could reduce the cost of space transportation by as much as a factor of five.”
That’s why ULA inked a deal with UCF’s Phil Metzger and research partner Juliet Brisset at the Florida Space Institute to figure out how to extract the water from the lunar regolith, or the rocky material covering the surface.
The UCF duo have a proposed method to extract water from the surface. Their idea is to drill holes into the moon and pump heat in, warming the regolith beneath it. As it heats up, water vapor would rise to the surface for collection.
Turning that vapor into fuel on the surface of the moon could help establish a cosmic gas station. “What it really does is it begins to open up the whole solar system for more economic activity, for more science, for more exploration, and ultimately for the human settlement of the solar system,” said Metzger.
There have been other proposals to mine the surface for water, but Metzger said those methods require heavy equipment. “When you talk about getting things into space, weight matters,” he said. “So we are looking at a technique that would require less stuff you have to transport which still gets the job done.”
The research team at UCF will build prototypes based on computer models to determine the most efficient way to extract water. They already have data that supports their harvesting idea, the trick will be to find the most efficient way to do it.
“We have to figure out the right geometric configuration of the holes to increase the area that is heated,” said researcher Juliet Brisset. “If we do it right, we should be able to increase the area and the time it stays warm. We will be doing a lot of modeling.”
Metzger said the contract with ULA is for a six month study and includes funding to hire students to assist in the research.