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UCF receives NASA grant to explore new ways to mine lunar surface for resources

Researchers say new technique could make space travel easier

The return of humans to the moon, as well as ongoing robotic missions, may require using resources already on the lunar surface. The moon's south pole is of particular interest because of ice deposits in craters there.
The return of humans to the moon, as well as ongoing robotic missions, may require using resources already on the lunar surface. The moon's south pole is of particular interest because of ice deposits in craters there. (Copyright 2019 CNN)

ORLANDO, Fla. – The University of Central Florida is researching how well-established mining techniques can transcend Earth’s surface and make its mark on the moon and asteroids.

UCF planetary scientist Phillip Metzger and his team at the Florida Space Institute have received a $125,000 NASA grant to develop a cost-effective way to mine minerals on the moon.

Metzger said the method could change the future of space travel.

Universities and private groups are researching ways to mine on the moon. Currently, methods under consideration require heavy machinery that has to somehow make their way to the moon or asteroids. Apart from the extreme conditions such machinery would have to endure in space and on the moon, it would be expensive.

Groups have proposed thermal extraction methods. This strategy requires heating up the ice along with soil around it and turning the ice into steam in order to extract the ice from the soil. But because there is no atmosphere to keep the moon warm, the craters are extremely cold, making it difficult to generate the changes needed to turn ice to vapor while the ice is still in the crater. This method would require tremendous amounts of energy.

UCF’s patent-pending method takes a different approach, skipping the procedure. Instead, UCF has found a method that separates the ice from the other material after extraction. The goal is to separating nonessential materials from the ice which results in separated ice, mineral and metal piles.

(Courtesy of NASA, Jessica Woodard, UCF)
(Courtesy of NASA, Jessica Woodard, UCF) (Copyright 2020 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

[RELATED: UCF researchers to help find right spot for moon-mining outpost]

Metzger has been tasked by NASA to further investigate the technique by running lab simulations.

In a press release, the university says the extracted ice could be used to refuel vehicles that pull spacecraft. These vehicles dubbed space tugs can help spacecraft such as telecommunication satellites get into orbit faster.

With a spacecraft getting into orbit quicker, this could help speed up operations altogether which in turn can save millions of dollars, depending on the mission, Metzger says in a news release.

He says the overarching implication of this type of method makes space mining much more viable and help improve Earth’s carbon footprint.

“I believe that by the end of the century we can move more than half of the machinery off of the planet which would be extremely beneficial for biodiversity,” Metzger said in a news release. “This kind of endeavor is only possible through economically feasible methods of extraction.”


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