How would you go about building a house on the Moon?
Matt Shaw, a Research Scientist with our In-Situ Resource Utilisation team has an answer: with great difficulty.
It is a challenge that lies at the heart of astrometallurgy, Matt’s speciality. The discipline explores how we can extract useful metals from extraterrestrial materials, like those found on the Moon and Mars.
“There are only so many ways that you can make metal on Earth and we're pretty good at it. We've been doing it for a very long time,” Matt said.
“What we're not good at is dealing with extreme conditions.”
Astrometallurgy gets a cold shoulder
Those extreme conditions are no joke.
As lunar night falls, temperatures on the surface quickly plummet below -180 degrees Celsius. It doesn’t rise until day breaks two weeks later. India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission faces this same problem. In fact, its forced into hibernation during the long lunar night.
Frigid nights aren’t the only challenge astrometallurgists like Matt must tackle.
One of the biggest is lunar soil, known as regolith. Solar radiation, extreme temperatures and micrometeorite strikes mean that lunar regolith is incredibly fine and dusty. Simultaneously, it's also sharp and sticky because it's electrostatically charged. For rovers and other equipment to do their work, they needed to be able to operate in that environment. Add in low gravity, lack of pressure, and resupply logistics, and the task looks almost insurmountable.
“The main challenge for us is how do we design processes that work in these conditions and can survive them?”
Making cents of Moon manufacturing
Matt loves throwing challenges like this to students on a wide variety of STEM career paths.
“Space has this amazing unifying nature, everyone’s interested in it. It’s still the final frontier,” he said.
“If I say to a bunch of undergraduates, ‘We want you to measure the thermal gradient across alumino-silicate material heated under solid-state sintering conditions’, no one wants to do that, right?”
“But if I say, ‘We want to build a house on the Moon – we’re going to take Moon dirt, sinter it, and 3D print it, and you need to figure out how much heat will get through that material,’ they just love that.”
But all of this begs the question: If it’s so much easier to make metal on Earth, why not just fly it up there instead? The answer, as with so many things in life, comes down to dollars and cents.
“It costs us about $1.2 million per kilogram right now to send something to the surface of the Moon,” Matt said.
“If we want to build radio telescopes on the Moon, or even just a Moon base…it’s going to be way too heavy. It makes sense to use native resources in space.”
Kerbal to career: rocketing into metallurgy
Matt’s love of space came from long hours with the video game Kerbal Space Program, designing (and blowing up) countless rockets and learning about orbital physics. After completing his studies, extractive metallurgy took Matt across the world.
The advent of NASA’s Artemis program, a burgeoning Australian space industry, and renewed focus on resource utilisation helped fast-track Matt’s ambitions.
“It’s cool chemistry, mixed with physics, mixed with process control engineering and just hitting things with hammers.”
Matt has to draw on all this knowledge when it comes to planning future robotic missions to the Moon. Enter, our 'Moon-in-a-room' ISRU test facility, which effectively simulates lunar regolith (among other things). It's the testing ground we need to prepare for what the Moon will throw at us.
From lunar lab to FameLab
Matt’s passion for science communication – along with his Moon-house conundrum – brought him to FameLab. Run by the Foundation for the Western Australian Museum, the competition challenges researchers to explain their science in under three minutes. Matt won the Victorian semi-finals in June, landing him a spot at the national finals in September.
“FameLab has provided a platform to talk to a lot of people about the work that we do, and hopefully inspire some people to learn more about what’s happening,” he said.
As it turns out, a lot is happening. There are an increasing number of robotic missions heading to the Moon, astronauts will return to the Moon in a few short years, and the European Space Agency has plans to build its own Moon village.
“We will make metal on the Moon in the next 5 to 10 years, and it will be a terrestrial process that we’ve packaged and sent up there,” Matt said.
“My challenge to myself with this research is, can we be more novel? Can we use the vacuum and low gravity to do metal extraction in a novel way?”
Matt is certainly on a mission to find out.