Lunar Propellant Mining NASA NIAC Study

The Lunar Polar Mining Outpost (LPMO) (see quad chart graphic) is a breakthrough mission architecture that promises to greatly reduce the cost of human exploration and industrialization of the Moon. LPMO is based on two patent pending inventions that together solve the problem of affordable lunar polar ice mining for propellant production. The first invention, Sun Flower™ stems from a new insight into lunar topography. We have found multi kilometer landing areas in lunar polar regions on which the surface is likely ice rich regolith in perpetual darkness but with perpetual sunlight available at altitudes of only 100s of meters. In these landing sites, which we found and mapped in our Phase 1 study, deployable reflectors on towers a few hundred meters tall (lightweight and feasible in lunar gravity) can provide nearly continuous solar power. A large lander, such as the Blue Moon vehicle proposed by Blue Origin or lunar ice mining outpost can sit on mineable ice at ground level in perpetual sunlight provided by lightweight reflectors. A single New Glenn launch can deliver a Sun Flower with over 1 MW of solar arrays, tower, and reflector in an integrated package.

The second enabling innovation for LGMO is Radiant Gas Dynamic (RGD) mining. RGD mining is a new Patent Pending technology invented by TransAstra to solve the problem of economically and reliably prospecting and extracting large quantities (1,000s of tons per year) of volatile materials from lunar regolith using landed packages of just a few tons each. To obviate the problems of mechanical digging and excavation, RGD mining uses a combination of radio frequency, microwave, and infrared radiation to heat permafrost and other types of ice deposits with a depth-controlled heating profile. This sublimates the ice and encourages a significant fraction of the volatiles to migrate upward out of the regolith into cryotraps where it can be stored in liquid form. RGD mining technology is integrated into long duration electric powered rovers. In use, the vehicles stop at mining locations and lower their collection domes to gather available water from an area before moving on. When on-board storage tanks are full, the vehicles return to base to empty tanks before moving back out into the field to continue harvesting. The rover is water fuel cell powered and part of a complete water electrolysis energy and propellant economy on the Moon. RGD mining will allow the development of a practical system that can be constructed on a mobile platform to enable the use of a mixture of different types of radiant energy with different penetration depths to control the release of water vapor from hard lunar permafrost in such a way that it can be trapped and captured by a water collection system. Although microwave extraction methods have been proposed in the past they have typically required prior excavation of substrate material or did not include methods to prevent re-trapping of water by cold regolith. By using a multi frequency radiant system, RGD provides a variable heating profile that sublimates water vapor in layers from the top down and encourages evolved water to migrate into cryotraps in the vehicle while minimizing refreezing of the water vapor in the surrounding substrate. This design combines subsurface ice prospecting via low voltage DC subsurface sensing integrated with TRL-6 drills for detection and volatile gas collection in a single vehicle. We estimate that rovers sized for a New Glenn will mass between 2 and 5 tons and would each be capable of harvesting between 20 and 100 times its mass per year in water.

Based on these innovations, LGMO promises to vastly reduce the cost of establishing and maintaining a sizable lunar polar outpost that can serve first as a field station for NASA astronauts exploring the Moon, and then as the beachhead for American lunar industrialization, starting with fulfilling commercial plans for a lunar hotel for tourists.

13 thoughts on “Lunar Propellant Mining NASA NIAC Study”

  1. You just assume lunar activity, then say it is easier on the Moon. I assume Space activity, and say it is easier in Space. Set up a plant on the Moon? Or a starter mass driver? Which works best long term?

  2. Yes, all the lunar material is useful.
    But is it useful enough to justify using all the fuel that is required to send it from the moon’s surface to your orbital location?

    And it would be just silly to send material up from the moon (using lots of fuel), process it in space to get fuel, send the fuel back down to the moon (using more fuel), to then burn that fuel to send more material back up to orbit. Much better to make the fuel on the moon.

  3. All of the mass is useful. Water, of course. Probably smaller amounts of C and N which may be lost with early lunar process. Certainly glass, metals of all kinds, waste O for reaction mass, and for the rest, radiation shielding. Bring the stuff back to the ISS and go to work on it! Why do anything extra on a planet such as the Moon?

  4. Why do the processing on the Moon when all of the material is useful in Space?

    Because in this case the processed product (water) is a small % of the original mass (frozen dirt with a small water content).

    Sending all that frozen dirt into space just to do the processing there is far less energy efficient than doing it on the moon.

  5. “but it seems like a moon settlement can more likely be all those things with the reduced health and survivability consequences (as compared to orbital base)” You must be assuming non-rotating orbital, right? An orbital rotating hab in Al Globus’ ELEO would seem ideal as first step, no?

  6. “The trick is combining them with energy to make useful products.” Which means to do it in Space, in 0 g, once the material has been captured or mass driver launched. Why do the processing on the Moon when all of the material is useful in Space? This excludes the very first start up, of course.

  7. Nah, Mars has millions of times as much water as the Moon, and icy bodies in the outer solar system have thousands of times more than Mars.

    Mineral resources are abundant all over the Solar System. The trick is combining them with energy to make useful products. The above article shows how to get solar power to shadowed craters, thus supplying the energy component you need.

  8. It’s just a study, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program have been funding tons of these types of studies every year for 2 decades.
    Don’t confuse the interests and goals of independent entities and those of NASA. NASA implements their funding mandates, they don’t receive a check every year with a memo line saying “go do interesting stuff”.

  9. Nah, Mars has millions of times as much water as the Moon, and icy bodies in the outer solar system have thousands of times more than Mars.

    Mineral resources are abundant all over the Solar System. The trick is combining them with energy to make useful products. The above article shows how to get solar power to shadowed craters, thus supplying the energy component you need.

  10. look at Antarctica base… how many are dedicated researchers and how many are support staff and tourists? And how many of those researchers are there because one of the support staff is a significant other/ social anchor. And how much of the cost of the bases are covered from tourism and the support staff. Sometimes planning the neighbourhood around the thing is as important as the thing.

  11. I know that the 60s to 80s completely analyzed just about every possible living condition for a moonbase (sub-terrannean, crater shelters, hardened bubbles, etc), but I always believed that a laGrange or cislunar orbital outpost was the first step to research, mineral exploitation/ refining, shipyard, tourist resort, mini-city, inter-solar jump-off exploration hub, asteroid deflection headquarters, jump-drive terminal, etc…, but it seems like a moon settlement can more likely be all those things with the reduced health and survivability consequences (as compared to orbital base) to inhabitants and therefore longer stays, larger infrastructure, reduced operability costs, etc. Go Big First maybe. A 10,000 person presence, with average 6-month rotations, could push all things space forward faster – maybe 2028 – 2035. Come on Elon, get those Boring-Lunar(tm) and Starships up there for that 100k sq.ft burrow of tunnels and space civilization facilities.

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