Courtesy of NASA/JPL/USGS

In testimony before the National Space Council on August 20, Clive Neal, Professor of Lunar Geology at the University of Notre Dame, presented his views regarding innovative space initiatives and focused on the resources of the Moon.

Neal’s written statement offers an expansive look at lunar resource utilization – and issues that need addressing to create a sustained presence on the Moon and bring Earth’s celestial partner into our economic sphere of influence:

Vice-President Pence, Administrator Bridenstine, Members of the Space Council, ladies and gentlemen.

I am deeply honored to be talking to you today about Lunar In Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU. There has been much speculation about this subject since the return of the Apollo samples.

However, little progress has been made toward actually having ISRU involved in getting humans beyond low Earth orbit. The time is now right to take a giant leap by using the Moon to learn how to live off the land, thus enabling sustained human presence off-Earth, while stimulating a new sector of our economy.

Geologist Harrison Schmitt performs Moon tasks during Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
Credit: NASA

Apollo’s history lessen

As we look forward to the Moon, we need to learn from history.

Apollo was a monumental achievement and last month we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. However, Apollo showed us how not to conduct human space exploration, because such a program, based upon international competition, is not sustainable. This is demonstrated by the fact that 2019 also marks 47 years since the last human walked on the Moon.

Therefore, in order to have an enduring, sustainable, multi-decadal human space exploration program, two things are required:

First – we should choose to go to the Moon with our international and commercial partners in a spirit of cooperation. This will allow the build-up of assets on the lunar surface so we can learn how to live and work productively off planet in preparation for the exploration of Mars.

Second – space exploration must deliver a return on the tax-payer investment, such that the budget of our space agency is viewed as an investment in the future of this country.

A source of water on the Moon could help make future crewed missions more sustainable and affordable.
Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

Lunar resource products

Nevertheless, the Moon in the Moon-to-Mars program has been interpreted, at least by some, to be a “stepping-stone” or a “box-to-check” on the way to Mars. But lunar resources can be enabling by maintaining human life, growing a base of operations, stimulating a cislunar economy through job growth, and making journeys to destinations beyond affordable and sustainable. This requires a permanent human presence on the Moon that will create a demand for lunar resource products.

But what are the lunar resources?

They can be subdivided into those that can be used in situ and those for export. In situ resources include: Polar water ice and other water-yielding lunar resources; bulk regolith can be used for 3D printing of lunar habitats, and refining regolith for Oxygen, Titanium, Silicon, etc. Resources that are potential off-Moon exports include rocket fuel from lunar water, beaming of solar power back to Earth, platinum group & rare earth metals, Helium-3, which is a potential fuel for nuclear fusion yielding no toxic by-products. China is very interested in this.

Lunar ice exposures (black dots) and cold traps not showing ice (cyan circles)
Credit: Shuai Li, et al.

Resource, reserve

In the ISRU discussion, the term “resource” has been used when “reserve” is what is meant. A resource is a geologic commodity that exists but its extent is a best estimate. A reserve is a subgroup of a resource that has a known size, composition, and can be extracted economically.

Therefore, the most immediate and vital issue for lunar ISRU is defining if resources are actually reserves, and so are economically viable. Mobile surface assets are critically needed to map out the area, vertical extent, concentration, and composition of any resource. Note that prospecting is not done at just one location – it is conducted at several in order to find the best places for infrastructure investment.

Thus, geologic prospecting on the Moon needs to be a campaign.

Newly developed extraction technique for the Moon, thermal mining, makes use of mirrors to exploit sun-shy, water ice-laden polar craters.
Credit: School of Mines/Dreyer, Williams, Sowers

Return on investment

Prospecting data will inform commercial entities of the Moon’s potential, further stimulating the return on investment that NASA has started with space transportation and payload service providers. The same data will also be critical for scientific discovery regarding the origins of such deposits.

Therefore, any prospecting campaign cross-cuts through NASA’s mission directorates and should not be stove-piped into one. This is seen with NASA’s cross-cutting Lunar Discovery & Exploration Program, where the VIPER project is developing a rover to explore water ice & other lunar deposits.

I hope this class of rover will form the basis of a lunar prospecting campaign, and a similar campaign at Mars.

The Artemis program will send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024 and develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028. The program takes its name from the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology.
Credit: NASA

Beyond camping trips

The Artemis program of record goes beyond the camping trips of Apollo, focusing on increasingly longer human stays at one location, leading to the establishment of a permanent lunar surface base of operations.

A field station at the South Pole by 2028 is a goal of this program, so having the capability of resource extraction before then will be vital. The field station will require local resources to sustainably develop, expand, and maintain it, so development of local resources will allow humanity to survive and thrive on the Moon and beyond.

However, based on the initial findings from the Lunar ISRU workshop in July, not knowing if the resources are reserves, coupled with the lack of markets for products from such resources, are preventing any commercial mining involvement. NASA can provide these much-needed data and create markets for resource products.

Exploration of south pole crater. Water ice-rich resource ready for processing?
Credit: NASA

Oil of the solar system

Water is a resource at many localities throughout the Solar System. In fact, Water is the oil of the Solar System in terms of fuel for interplanetary spacecraft using liquid oxygen-hydrogen engines.

Therefore, development of destination agnostic water ISRU capabilities means no new systems are required when we go to Mars and beyond. Also needed are high-density power solutions in order to extract the commodities, refine them, and store/transfer the products.

We are hearing at this meeting about some new power innovations that could make off-world resource prospecting and mining a reality.

In summary, bringing the Moon into our economic sphere of influence will benefit society on Earth, create a new sector of our economy, and reinforce United States leadership in space exploration.

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