Why The Moon Could Fuel Future Space Missions

A recent report funded and published by the United Launch Alliance outlines the the potential viability of mining the Moon for rocket fuel. At over 170 pages, it is quite a read but Philip Metzger, one of the authors wrote a good summary on his website. I thought I would try and make a similar summary here with slight more explanation, and where it fits into the future NASA plans of getting back to the Moon and going onward to Mars and beyond. It all revolves around water, or more specifically ice. For many years we thought the Moon was a baron rocky cold desert. The samples that the Apollo astronauts brought back from the Moon, and the Soviet Luna samples imply that there is no water in the rocks or regolith. The trace amounts of water found in the samples were assumed to be contamination. Although, in 2008, a study of the Apollo rock samples did show some water molecules trapped in volcanic glass beads. Also in 1978, Soviet scientists published a paper claiming the 1976 Luna 24 probe contained 0.1% water by mass. Plus the Apollo 14 ALSEP Suprathermal Ion Detector Experiment (SIDE) detected the first direct evidence of water vapor ions on March 7th 1971. None of these discoveries were taken as conclusive proof of water on the Moon at the time.

An image of the SIDE experiment from Apollo 14. It measured the energies and masses of positively charged ions near the surface of the Moon and also studied the interaction between the solar wind and the Moon as the Moon moved through the Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA.

On September 24th 2009 it was reported that the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) spectrometer on India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft had detected water ice on the Moon. The map of the features show that there is more at cooler, higher latitudes, and in some deep craters. Basically, the parts of the Moon that see the least light like the poles and far into craters near the poles have managed to keep the water on and below the surface. This water is in a number of different states, some locked up in minerals, some in ice form, and others in OH form, not technically water but near. This has lead to a number of new possibilities of inhabiting the Moon and using its resources. This is why the United Launch Alliance funded a paper on the possible use of mining this water and using it as a future fuel source. By some estimates there could be as much as 10 billion tonnes of water on the Moon. The water could in theory be mined, and through electrolysis turned into hydrogen and oxygen, the fuel that got men to the Moon on the famous Saturn V.

Left side of the Moon Mineralogy Mapper that was located on the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter. Credit: NASA

But you have to ask, why does it matter? the Moon is far away, and surely water is just useful for astronauts living on the Moon to survive. Well the report talks about the business case to use the water as fuel, in the form of hydrogen and oxygen. First we need to understand the commercial satellite world, and geostationary satellites. When first sending up such satellites, the way to do it was to use a multi stage rocket, with the first stage getting to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) and then the second (upper) stage being used to get into the Geostationary Orbit (GEO). Recent years have allowed the first stage to be hugely improved and often reusable by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. The second stage hasn’t had the same improvements though. Traditionally the second stage was a normal, and very heavy liquid rocket. This meant that it was very expensive to get things to GTO, much more difficult than LEO. The rocket was also thrown away afterwards, and as it is so far out it will take hundreds or even thousands of years to burn up in the atmosphere. 

A diagram of the traditional way to boost communication satellites into orbit. Credit Dr Phil Metzger

Now we do have a better way to do it, sort of. I talked recently about the rise of electric thrusters. A lightweight, cheap and powerful solution when used over a long period of time. Over the time span of years they can pick up speeds of thousands of miles per hour. That is the biggest downside of them though, in this situation, slowly pushing the satellite to orbit, they take up to a year to get a satellite into position. That is a year that it could be making the owner money. By some estimates that year could lose $100 million in revenue just waiting for the slow thrusters. By all accounts though, this is still cheaper than launching a large traditional rocket upper stage. The electric thrusters are amazingly light comparatively, which means you need a smaller first stage to get it up to space in the first place. The key thing you have to remember about these geosynchronous satellites is that they already have a huge price tag, some can cost upwards of half a billion dollars to build and launch.Part of the reason is that they tend to be huge, in size and weight. Some have been as big as London double Decker buses, and weigh 6 tonnes. The rockets then need to get them to one of the furthest and time consuming orbits, a costly exercise. 

A diagram of the current way to boost communication satellites into orbit. Credit Dr Phil Metzger

So why can this Moon mining idea help? well the Moon is in lots of countries space plans at the moment. China are currently sending lots of probes, and by some accounts looking to get humans there. The USA are building the SLS which should be able to get humans to the Moon, and are also developing the LOP-G idea. The concept to have an orbital station around the Moon, almost like a fuel stop for rockets going on to further parts of the solar system. This idea to mine the Moon for hydrogen and oxygen could be transferred up to this orbital space station to be transferred to the rockets that need it. This is where the geosynchronous satellites come in. Imagine if this fuel, that is dug up and processed by robots, and then sent up to an orbital station could be brought back closer to Earth via a space tug. This space tug could meet up with the rocket with the satellite on board. The upper stage rocket could have been sent up with no fuel (the heaviest bit) and is fueled by this space tug. It would allow for the speed of the old style engines, but the weight of newer electric engines. As long as the price for this whole system is cheaper than the $100 million it currently costs, then it could be a viable option. All the while, setting ground work for space agency’s to have viable water sources that can be used for future exploration. It may be the future of space travel.

Atlas 5 taking off
Atlas 5 lifting off from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. If this idea takes off, these rockets could propel much larger payloads into much bigger orbits. Credit: @marcuscotephoto on Twitter

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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The Items Apollo 11 Left behind on the Moon

Aldrin Looks Back at Tranquility Base
Buzz Aldrin Looks Back at Tranquility Base just after deploying the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP). Credit: NASA.

July 21st 1969. The time is 2:56 UTC, Neil Armstrong is taking the first steps on the moon, 20 minutes later Buzz Aldrin is following. The landing site looks clean apart from the big lander that is their lift home. By the end of the two hour EVA on the lunar surface the site would be walked over, science experiments laid out, and a pile of rubbish left in a pit. A view you don’t get to see in the images from Apollo 11, the astronauts left over 100 items on the lunar surface. Some commemorative, but mostly items they didn’t need for the return journey.

The plaque
The plaque attached to the lunar lander, with a message from all mankind, just in case some other being finds it. It commemorates the first steps on the Moon. Credit: NASA.

Famously landing in the sea of tranquillity, the Eagle lander has a number of official commemorative items attached to it. The main one is a plaque proclaiming “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Under the “we come in peace” is a golden replica of an olive branch. Nearby is a small aluminium capsule with a tiny Silicon disc inside. It contained on it messages from four US presidents, and seventy three other heads of state. It was sketched onto it in microscopic lettering, with the wording found here. There are also a few non official items taken there by the astronauts. An Apollo 1 patch in memory of Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White who died in January 1967 in a fire inside the first Apollo capsule. They also left behind two military medals that belonged to Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, both famous USSR cosmonauts. It showed the respect these men had for Soviet cosmonauts who had achieved so many firsts, and went through the same trials and tests they did.

The Apollo 1 patch
The patch for the famous Apollo 1 where Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White tragically died in a fire. The patch was left on the Moon. Credit: NASA

On top of this they left the science experiments that they had used, such as the passive seismic experiment. The experiment that used meteorite impacts on the surface to map the inside structure of the Moon. They also placed a master reflector so that scientists could measure the distance from Earth precisely. This retroreflector still works, and if you have access to a powerful enough laser you can measure it yourself. They also had to pick up lots of moon rocks and moon dust as part of the science mission. They used sample scoops, scales and even a small hammer. There are also many specific tools that were needed, but were discarded before the return journey.

Map of Tranquillity base
Map of Tranquillity base including the Toss Zone where all the rubbish was discarded. Credit: NASA

Overall they left roughly 106 random bits if rubbish at the launch site. Including lots of tools like the hammers, chisel and brushes needed for sampling; astronaut EVA gear such as the over boots and and life support systems; and actual rubbish like the empty food bags, some armrests they wanted to dispose of; a TV camera; insulation blanket; pins and plastic covers for items like the flag (and the flag itself) plus the urine, defecation and sickness bags, although there is no word on whether they were used. They threw all the items into an area behind the lander known as the “Toss Zone”, basically just a rubbish pit.

Buzz with science
Buzz carrying science experiments to the required place slightly away from tranquility base. Credit: NASA

The astronauts left a surprisingly large amount of stuff on the Moon, but it does make sense, as they needed that weight to be replaced with the 300 kg of Moon rocks that they wanted to bring back, so they just left it all there. There is a full list of the items on this webpage, and its worth a look. Archived by the Lunar Legacy Project, they count it as over 106 items. Depending on how you count it, there can be over 116 items left by the Apollo Astronauts.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

How the Moon’s Dust Could be Deadly

footprint on the moon
Very famous image of a footprint in the lunar soil, part of the 70mm Hasselblad image collection, you can see the dust and rocks that are classed as mature Regolith, Credit: NASA.

The space industry is changing, improving and looking at places to go. Although Mars is the big target for Elon Musk and SpaceX, revisiting the Moon is a big and real challenge that many are aiming for. Whether it is just getting people back there in a safer and cheaper way than Apollo or if it is companies wanting to design Moon bases, it is an active area of interest. Since the Moon landings over half a century ago, researchers have poured over the moon rocks, and images brought back from the mission. More recently though, researchers are looking at a slightly overlooked factor, lunar dust. They were a problem for the astronauts to landed there in the 60’s/70’s and they may pose a problem to future missions where they may spend weeks or months rather than just a few hours/days. The research below shows how the moon moon affects us when we are there, and how it could be very dangerous.

Harrison Schmitt collects samples
NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt retrieving lunar samples using a scoop during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Credit: NASA.

At time of writing, twelve people have been known to walk on the Moon, all between 1968 and 1972. The longest any group spent on the Moon was the crew of Apollo 17 who spent just over three days there. Sleeping in the Lunar Exploration Module, the astronauts tended to collect lots of dust during the EVA’s (Extravehicular Activity). As the moon has a much lower magnetic field it gets blasted with much more radiation from the sun on the surface.  This electrostatically charges the dust particles making it much more likely to stick to the astronauts spacesuits. This linked with the lower gravity of the Moon means that the particles do not drift to the ground as fast like on Earth. Plus when the dust got into the Spacecraft it had no gravity on the trip home. All these factors meant that the astronauts inhaled lots of lunar dust during the mission.

Lunar dust particle
Fine like powder, but sharp like glass. An image of a lunar dust particle. Credit: NASA/JSC.

On earth, dust tends to be fairly round, eroded over time by wind and water. It is also not only rocks, but biological as well,  On the moon, the dust is just rocky and hasn’t been eroded over time as there is no wind or water. The particles are spikey, abrasive and nasty. All twelve of the people who landed on the moon suffered with what NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt described as “lunar hay fever”. They had symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion and often they took time to fade. Most people know that the astronauts describe the dust as smelling like burnt gunpowder, but don’t know that it made them quite ill. Even the astronauts themselves might not have known the true reasoning behind the illness. Part of the reason is that the lunar dust has silicate in it, often found on planetary bodies with volcanic activity. As well as making the astronauts ill, it was so abrasive that it ate away at layers in the spacesuit boots, and destroyed vacuum seals on sample containers.

Eugene Cernan Hay fever
NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module, still on the moon after his second moonwalk of Apollo 17. With spacesuit covered in lunar dust he complained of hay fever like symptoms. Credit: NASA.

One study by Stony Brook University School of Medicine, NY looked into the toxicity and DNA damage as a result of exposure to Lunar dust. They attempted to mimic the effect of lunar regolith (the dust) on mammalian cells. They took lung and neuronal cells and then exposed them to materials processed to mimic lunar dust so they could assess survival and genotoxicity. They showed that the soil can cause death to some cells and DNA damage in both neuronal and lung cell lines. Certain forms of the dust had more effect than others, but it was shown that depending on conditions, lunar soil can be cytotoxic (toxic to living cells) and genotoxic (damages genetic information) to both neuronal cells and lung cells. Testing was done by cultures and not tested on real people or animals. Kim Prisk, a pulmonary physiologist from the University of California with over 20 years of experience in human spaceflight is taking part in similar research as Part of an ESA research program. She mentions that “Particles 50 times smaller than a human hair can hang around for months inside your lungs. The longer the particle stays, the greater the chance for toxic effects”. ESA make simulated moon dust from a volcanic region in Germany. See their post on Lunar dust here.

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

McMoon: How the Earliest Images of the Moon Were so Much Better than we Realised

An Earthrise over the moon’s horizon, taken by Lunar Orbiter 1 on August 24th 1966. Credit NASA/LOIRP.

Fifty years ago, 5 unmanned lunar orbiters circled the moon, taking extremely high resolution photos of the surface. They were trying to find the perfect landing site for the Apollo missions. They would be good enough to blow up to 40 x 54ft images that the astronauts would walk across looking for the great spot. After their use, the images were locked away from the public until after the bulk of the moon landings, as at the time they would have revealed the superior technology of the USA’s spy satellite cameras, which the orbiters cameras were designed from. The main worry was the USSR gaining valuable information about landing sites that the US wanted to use. In 1971 many of the images were released, but nowhere near to their potential quality, and mainly to an academic audience as public interest in the moon had waned. Up until 2008 most of the reported images from the project were the 1966 versions that were grainy and lower quality.

Earthrise difference
Comparison of the Earthrise image shown to the public in 1966 on top, and the restored image directly from the tape on the bottom. The bottom image was released in 2008, 42 years after it was taken. Credit: NASA/LOIRP.

These spacecraft were Lunar Orbiter I to V, and they were sent by NASA during 1966 and 67. In the late 1960’s, after the Apollo era, the data that came back on analog tapes was placed in storage in Maryland. In the mid 1980’s they were transferred to JPL, under the care of Nancy Evans, co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System (PDS). The tapes were moved around for many years, until Nancy found Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing. They decided they needed to be digitised for future generations, and brought them to NASA Ames Research Centre. They set up shop in an abandoned McDonalds, offered to them as free space. They christened the place McMoon. The aim was to digitise these tapes before the technology used to read them disappeared, or the tapes destroyed.

The Mcdonalds
The McDonalds nicknamed McMoon, with the trademark skull and crossbones flag denoting the “hacker” methodology. Credit: MIT Technology Review.

The Lunar Orbiters never returned to Earth with the imagery. Instead, the Orbiter developed the 70mm film (yes film) and then raster scanned the negatives with a 5 micron spot (200 lines/mm resolution) and beamed the data back to Earth using lossless analog compression, which was yet to actually be patented by anyone. Three ground stations on earth, one of which was in Madrid, another in Australia and the other in California recieved the signals and recorded them. The transmissions were recorded on to magnetic tape. The tapes needed Ampex FR-900 drives to read them, a refrigerator sized device that cost $300,000 to buy new in the 1960’s.

The FR-900 that was used to restore the old images. A mix of old and new equipment to get the images to modern PC’s. Credit: MIT Technology Review.
FR-900 signed
The back of the first FR-900 has been signed by the people who brought the project to life, including Nancy Evans. Credit: MIT Technology Review.

The tape drive that they found first had to be restored, beginning with a wash in the former restaurants sink. The machine needed a custom built demodulator to extract the image, an analog to digital converter, and a monitor connection to view what was happening. As the labelling system of the tapes had been forgotten, and documentation was not readily available, they had to hand decode the coordinates on the tapes. They also had a big collection from parts of other FR-900’s and similar designs. The spare parts were constantly needed to keep the recorder going, there was good reason that the format didn’t continue for long.

moon image reels
These are just some of the reels of moon images. They use this machine to hand inspect the reels, mainly to figure out the coordinate labelling system. Credit: MIT Technology Review.

In order to read the tapes, the heads of the FR-900 apply a magnetic field to the tape inducing a current through it. The current can be measured and run through the demodulator. This pulls out the image signal, that is then run through an analog to digital converter. The data is then processed on a computer using the custom system they set up. They made custom software that interfaced with Photoshop to link the relevant parts of the image together. The orbiters sent out each image in multiple transmissions, with each strip (one tin) making up part of the image. the software manages to link up the images nearly seamlessly at the full potential resolution. The best of the images can show the lunar surface at a resolution less than 1m, much better than any other orbiter that has been there.

tapes tapes tapes
The image shows the sheer amount of tapes that the few images are stored on. Inside McMoon you can also see a sleeping bag some poor guy had to stay in. Credit: thelivingmoon.com.

They were huge files, even by today’s standards. One of the later images can be as big as 2GB on a modern PC, with photos on top resolution DSLRs only being in the region of 60MB you can see how big these images are. One engineer said you could blow the images up to the size of a billboard without losing any quality. When the initial NASA engineers printed off these images, they had to hang them in a church because they were so big. The below images show some idea of the scale of these images. Each individual image when printed out was 1.58m by 0.4m.

NASA printing
This image shows the large thin strip images being laid out on the floor of a large room so the engineers could look for good landing spots. Credit: NASA.
NASA Engineer
The image shows a NASA technician with a ream of photograph printouts used to assemble the overall image. Credit: NASA.

Orbiter IV was there to produce a single big image of the front side of the moon. In pictures taken between May 11-25, 1967 the Orbiter took a number of images that span the area from the north pole to the south pole and from the eastern limb to the western limb. The complete mosaic of an image stretched 40 by 45 ft. The engineers laid it out on the floor and all the observers including the astronauts had to crawl over it and take off their shoes. The images were so good, even at this size that some astronomers used magnifying glasses. This giant image was the primary source to select the sites for Orbiter V  to photograph in a higher resolution. The images taken by Orbiter V decided the exact locations for Apollo 11 to land.

Tsiolkovskiy Crater
The very prominent feature in this image is the Tsiolkovskiy Crater on the far side of the moon. Taken by Orbiter 3 on 19 February 1967. Credit: NASA/LOIRP.

Since 2007 the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project has brought back 2000 images from 1500 analog tapes. The first ever picture of an earthrise. As Keith Cowing said “an image taken a quarter of a fucking million miles away in 1966. The Beatles were warming up to play Shea Stadium at the moment it was being taken.” To find more of those images go to their website, but I warn you those images are huge.

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.