A Lunaminer ’29er and his daughter Selenedyne

by guest blogger Ken

Ah, the perils of corporate confidentiality. I’m absolutely thrilled at the moment, but of course I can’t give any explanation of why.

What I can talk about though is Moon stuff. Science@NASA put up an article on Monday entitled “Hard-nosed advice to Lunar Prospectors”, and it’s actually pretty good. There’s also a link to a really interesting article from right here in Texas entitled “Mining and Manufacturing on the Moon”

David Beaty is associate Chief Scientist for the Mars Program, but has a 22 year history prospecting in the wilds of planet Earth. He postulates four pearls of wisdom that are down right sensible:

1) Wishful thinking is no substitute for scientific evidence. (Amen, brother)
2) You cannot define a reserve without specifying how it can be extracted. If it can’t be mined, it’s of no use.
3) Perfect knowledge is not possible. Exploration costs money, and we can’t afford to buy all the information we want. We have to make choices, deciding what information is critical and what’s not.
4) Don’t underestimate the potential effects of heterogeneity. All parts of the Moon are not alike, just as all parts of Earth are not alike. So where you land matters.

This sounds like the kind of guy I could do business with, but what do you expect, the man comes from private industry. Now if we could just get a few more straight shooters in there…

All of his points are valid and critical. I never talk about water ice at the lunar poles, just an abundance of hydrogen in some form. For the extraction of SWIEs I’ve offered the shake and bake (yes lawyers, I know it’s a trademarked term, but it also exactly describes the process of agitating the Lunar regolith while heating to about 1100 K. Bounce & broil? Agitate & enervate?) method of extraction as a pre-treatment to further processing of the regolith for mineral debinding to get the oxygen and metals.

His third point is one that business people have to live with every day. Decisions have to be made with imperfect knowledge involving the spending of money for which someone is responsible. Paralysis while trying to obtain perfect knowledge is fatal to an enterprise. Judgements have to be made about when enough knowledge is available to make a decision, just make sure you can document your justifications.

Heterogeneity is important given that everyone thinks the Moon is this homogenized dust of trace amounts of everything. The highlands are different from the mare in certain abundances. The radioactive elements uranium and thorium are good examples. They show significantly higher abundances in the younger mare lava flows than in the ancient highlands.

This would seem to make the South pole less attractive as a destination, until one considers the Aitken Basin, which exhibits some mare-like characteristics while being a destination of particular scientific interest.

So the guy’s basically given us the framework for what to do next on the Moon.
-We pick a handful of destinations based on specialized hyperspectral imagery (rangers).
-We prospect them using landers (surveyors and rovers)
-We then commit to a particular site for our first efforts.
-We develop a comprehensive characterization of that site (USGSnauts maybe?).
-We get started on the stuff we know we can do irregardless (treating the regolith, extracting oxygen & metals)

Any number of methods for extraction dating to the 80s and earlier have been proposed, with the last real round in the early to mid-90s before the Areans took over NASA and began bombarding us with faster, better, cheaper probes to Mars and the canard of life on another planet. But I digress…some thirteen methods have been proposed for heating the regolith, with microwaves looking really promising (melts faster than you can boil tea water). Caterpillar was going to look at regolith-moving equipment for 1/6th G. Whoops, that got cancelled. At least the Space Resources Roundtable at the Colorado School of Mines continues to look at the question of extraction.

So what do you do with what is produced on the Moon? The SWIEs (Solar Wind Implanted Elements) will give us trace amounts of the the CHONs (the ‘bio’ chemicals) which can be aggregated for use in a base or shipment to cislunar space. The oxygen is obvious, and should be an export to cislunar space. The metals can provide feedstock for basic tooling requirements at a Moonbase, can be shaped into basic structural elements for things like power towers or power satellites or astronomical instruments like radio telescopes or rails for linking future bases or orbitally-assembled spacecraft elements or…

The regolith can be treated to produce solar power cells. The glasses in the soil can produce fiberglass. The REE could be aggregated from highland KREEPs for industrial use. There’re any number of useful things that be produced from the soil. It could even be shipped back to Earth raw for use in the gardens of very rich people. Seriously, unlock the American entrepreneurial mind on the greyfields of the Moon and we couldn’t begin to imagine the wonders that might be created thereby.

So we need to focus on the scientific information that is of the greatest utility. For the Moon this is the relative elemental abundances in the soil at particularly interesting locations. For Mars I’m guessing maybe finding some current water, because it certainly isn’t going to be falling like mana from heaven.

Definitely a good article, and worth a read. Oh, and this website looks like fun…

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6 Responses to A Lunaminer ’29er and his daughter Selenedyne

  1. kert says:

    Space Resources Roundtable had moved their site, so last years materials are somewhere else. I had this bookmarked somewhere, when i find it i’ll post a link

  2. murphydyne says:

    Found it, over at the LPI site, and I’ve updated the original post to the current site (which is here).

    I should probably go just to network for 2007 ISDC, but in looking at the first announcement the content might be interesting as well. More grist for the internet blogmill!

  3. Paul Dietz says:

    Why would lower levels of uranium and thorium make an area unattractive? The near or medium-term importance of those elements for space exploitation is nil.

  4. Jon Goff says:

    Paul,
    You need to remember that a lot of us still remember the “bad old days” a few years back when even launching an RTG was looking like a dicey proposition. Nuclear really makes the most sense for a lot of lunar and off-world applications, and one of the big things we had to think about was “how the heck are you going to get permission to launch a nuclear plant?”

    Times have changed a bit for the better now, but paranoia is still there in many quarters, and the thought of possibly being able to decouple the availability of nuclear power from the terrestrial political environment can sound tempting. The massive equipment needed to process and enrich Uranium would be way too expensive to do off-world, but Thorium looks more amenable. All that said, if things continue going in a more sensible direction, maybe it’ll be a moot point. That’d be nice. It’s just always nice to have a backup plan.

    ~Jon

  5. Paul Dietz says:

    That argument doesn’t make sense to me. You’re still going to be launching nuclear reactors into space (building them in space will not be feasible before there is significant industrial infrastructure in space.)

    So, lunar mining can, at best, in the near or medium term, serve to substitute for nuclear fuel launched from Earth. But you’re not digging up fuel elements, or even enriched uranium; on the moon you’re digging up ores that yield unenriched elements. So what you need to compare is the cost of mining a kilogram of U or Th on the moon, then fabricating it into fuel elements, vs. the cost of shipping that same material from Earth, already in a form that can be used in fuel.

    There’s no serious safety issue with shipping natural uranium or thorium to the moon (any kooks complaining will just be ignored, as they have been for the vastly more radioactive RTGs.)

    Processing the natural fuel on the moon will be very difficult. You’re not going to be doing isotope separation there. If used in breeder reactors, the total quantity of material consumed will be small, so you might as well just ship it up from Earth (and you need to ship up high enrichment initial fuels anyway.)

  6. murphydyne says:

    For immediate exploitation the U and Th may be worth nil, but we have to look at the larger picture as well. Any early site chosen is going to have to maximize both scientific and commercial objectives. While the businessmen may not be interested in the U&Th right now, the scientists should be, and if we can figure out a way to aggregate Th out of the regolith we’re processing in a relatively painless fashion, then all of a sudden we may be thinking of Mare Frigorus instead of SPAB.

    On off-planet source of nuclear materials, as noted by Jon, is an enticing opportunity. Being able to develop nuclear engines off-world would sure make a lot of people happy. It’s win-win all around, so it should be factored in to the overall equation.

    It’s but one reason amongst many. I’m still convinced that the South Pole is our best starting point, and that’s -in part- because of the faint mare-like traces in the deepest parts of the Aitken Basin (the AB part of SPAB). Is it because the crust has been punctured down to the mantle? Does this give us an idea of how deeply the radioactives settled out to as the Moon cooled? Good scientific questions that play in to the overall utility of a SPAB base.

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