NASA is Seriously Considering Terraforming Part of the Moon with Robots

Jul 20, 2015

by Kelsey D. Atherton

Announced yesterday (July 6th), NASA is moving ahead with funding to study several ambitious space research projects, including one that would transform an inhospitable lunar crater into a habitat for robots — and eventually, human explorers. Located on the moon’s South Pole, Shackleton Crater isn’t just prime real estate for terraforming experiments, it’s Optimus Prime real estate. NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole, the crater covers about 130 square miles, or roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. It is surrounded on all sides by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet above the surface of the crater. Inside this moon-bowl, scientists have already found water, which is essential for any future human habitation.

Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.


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29 comments on “NASA is Seriously Considering Terraforming Part of the Moon with Robots

  • ” Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.”

    Aren’t they worried what will happen when all that cheese starts to melt?!
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  • @OP – NASA is Seriously Considering Terraforming Part of the Moon with Robots

    This title has NOTHING to do with the project described!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terraforming
    Terraforming (literally, “Earth-shaping”) of a planet, moon, or other body is the theoretical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be similar to the biosphere of Earth to make it habitable by Earth-like life.

    What is being proposed is a study on setting up a Moon-base in a crater which is in shadow, in order to exploit water ice from areas screened from the Sun.
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  • JimJFox
    Jul 21, 2015 at 3:43 am

    Pedantic, but is it too hard to make an effort?

    POPULAR SCIENCE????? I think not!

    “Popular” perhaps, but an article illustrating an ignorance of the nature of terraforming, and of the correct representation of Kelvin and Fahrenheit temperatures, is hardly informative space-science!

    @OP – Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole,

    Shackleton explored parts of Antarctica – NOT “The South Pole”!
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  • Rosbif – Jul 21, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Please, no crosses on the moon! It’ll only start the crazies off again.

    While the crazies will admire the crosses, the crosses are only coincidental as a result of transporting folded reflectors.
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  • The title on this article is rubbish and the author seems to have very little idea about the project!

    If anyone wants to know what is really planned, look at this link about robots mining regolith in the lunar crater for usable volatiles!

    http://www.nasa.gov/feature/trans-formers-for-lunar-extreme-environments-ensuring-long-term-operations-in-regions-of

    Imagine an oasis of warm sunlight surrounded by a desert of freezing cold darkness. Robots inside the oasis perform scientific lab analyses and process icy regolith brought from excavations in the neighboring darkness. This oasis, about the size of a football field, lies in a valley about twice the size of Washington DC, surrounded by peaks the size of Mount Rainier. From its low angle on the horizon, the sun’s rays never shine over the peaks into the valley, until heliostats unfold on these peaks and redirect the rays down to form the oasis of sunlight. This place becomes a large science laboratory and the largest off-Earth producer of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fueling inter-planetary trips. This is the Shackleton crater at the lunar South Pole and TransFormers are the heliostats projecting sunlight onto the oasis.

    We will explore this idea, which for the first time points to the possibility to develop a Continuous Solar Power Infrastructure at the South Pole dispersed around SC, forming a true ‘ring of power’. The first objective is to advance the TF (Transformer) concept in the context of a lunar mission at Shackleton crater, to power, heat and illuminate robotic operations inside SC to prospect/excavate lunar volatiles in icy regolith, and to perform in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) of icy regolith in order to extract water, hydrogen, and oxygen. The second objective is to advance the feasibility of TFs by performing a point design of a scalable TF that packs in a cube of less than 1m on the side, weights 10–100 kg, unfolds to over 1,000 m2 of thin (0.1 to 1 mm) reflective surface with over 95% long-term reflectivity and is robust to dust obscuration.

    @OP – NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

    No it doesn’t!!! The heliostat transformers are on the crater rim, and the robots utilise the reflected sunlight to remain warm, and power their solar cells so they can mine volatiles for use on the Moon and in space! – nothing to do with terraforming!

    @OP – Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location. . . . .. . .

    . . . . . To use reflectors on the crater rim, to provide 24 hour sunlight for heating and photovoltaic electricity for equipment inside the crater.
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  • @OP – NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

    This is nonsense!
    The heliostats are to produce precisely directed VERY local warming of equipment and electrical power for transport and processing, while strenuously avoiding heating unmined areas, as this would result in the loss of the sought after frozen volatiles into space.
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  • Yes, Kelvin is NOT a temperature but a reflection of the reality of motion. Fahrenheit is an artificially imposed temperature based on the boiling and freezing of water.

    When you are a journalist who hasn’t even elementary chemistry such boners must be common.

    You would think a popular science journalist could try a little harder!
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  • Did NASA choose the Shackleton crater because of the potential 24-hour sunlight?

    I ask because it seems counter-productive to choose a crater that is surrounded by mountains. But then, I will be the first to concede I am not a rocket scientist.
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  • Vicki
    Jul 21, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    Did NASA choose the Shackleton crater because of the potential 24-hour sunlight?

    They chose it because of its position at the pole. There is 24 hour sunlight on the crater rim, and 24 hour darkness in the shadows inside the crater where water ice and other volatiles can persist at extremely low temperatures.

    In the vacuum of the Moon, anywhere in direct sunlight would be extremely hot in the (2 week) daytime, so all volatiles would be lost from those areas even though they would be very cold at night.
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  • Neodarwinian
    Jul 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Yes, Kelvin is NOT a temperature but a reflection of the reality of motion. Fahrenheit is an artificially imposed temperature based on the boiling and freezing of water.

    Not only that, but Fahrenheit (like Celsius), is based on boiling and freezing of water (NTP) at sea-level air pressure on Earth!
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  • They chose it because of its position at the pole. There is 24 hour sunlight on the crater rim, and 24 hour darkness in the shadows inside the crater where water ice and other volatiles can persist at extremely low temperatures.

    Just to clarify: The 24/7 sunlight is in Earth days.
    The “Lunar days” of continuous polar sunlight or shadows, are of course approximately a month long, with a 50-50 light dark split everywhere except in these polar craters.
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  • @OP – NASA is Seriously Considering Terraforming Part of the Moon with Robots

    For the benefit of the author of this article, and anyone else interested, here is a description of what terraforming entails!

    http://www.spaceflight-uk.com/MarsSociety/

    In the very long term, it may be possible to “Terraform” Mars. By increasing the atmospheric pressure and introducing oxygen, it will become possible for plants to grow and eventually for people to not require spacesuits.

    As the process continues, water can exist on the surface, until we finally have a new world, with a land area equal to that of Earth!

    The possibility of terraforming Mars is dubious to say the least.
    Informed expert opinion considers the notion of terraforming the Moon as ridiculous!
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  • I think Shackelton crater was probably picked because there is water ice in the permanently shadowed crater. Once robots pave the way then there is an infrastructure in a place where water could be used for oxygen, drinking, and hydrogen fuel.
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  • This place becomes a large science laboratory and the largest off-Earth producer of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fueling inter-planetary trips.

    Presumably, the robots would mine liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to store in a rocket-fuel depot at the bottom of the crater. Would the robots also level a landing-take-off site in the oasis for arriving rockets to be refueled before taking off again on their “interplanetary trips.” Would the spacecraft be manned or unmanned?
    Will robots take care of all steps in the process through remote computer instructions or would human crews aboard the spacecraft be involved? The lead time and cost would seem to involve decades and hundreds of billions of dollars. Such questions seem to be left hanging. Answers anyone?
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  • Melvin
    Jul 26, 2015 at 1:46 am

    This place becomes a large science laboratory and the largest off-Earth producer of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fueling inter-planetary trips.

    Presumably, the robots would mine liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to store in a rocket-fuel depot at the bottom of the crater.

    They would mine these in the form of water. At the temperatures in the unlit/unheated areas of the crater, it should be possible to store them in tanks in manufactured liquid form. Alternatively the water could be launched into Lunar orbit and processed there using solar power.

    Would the robots also level a landing-take-off site in the oasis for arriving rockets to be refueled before taking off again on their “interplanetary trips.”

    It is unlikely and uneconomic to land interplanetary ships on the Moon. They would probably orbit the Moon and wait for deliveries from the surface docking with them.

    Would the spacecraft be manned or unmanned?

    Unless there are specific tasks requiring human skills, robotics are simpler and more cost effective.

    Will robots take care of all steps in the process through remote computer instructions or would human crews aboard the spacecraft be involved?

    It should be unnecessary for human crews to be involved, but if they were, remote operation from orbit or from Earth, would make more sense than landing them on the Moon and then returning them to orbit.

    Would the robots also level a landing-take-off site in the oasis for arriving rockets to be refueled before taking off again

    Initially Lunar shuttle craft carrying fuel to orbit are a step along the way, but a a system which does not need fuel or propellant, such as a Maglev sledge up a ramp or a rail-gun, would be better and safer in the longer term.
    (It would probably be better for safeguarding the resources against accidents, to have regular rocket landing sites outside the crater.)

    The absence of an atmosphere on the Moon means that such a system would not have the problems of air-resistance an Earth-bound system would encounter.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_sled_launch
    For hypersonic research in general, tracks at Holloman Air Force Base have tested, as of 2011, small rocket sleds moving at up to 6,453 mph (10,385 km/h) (Mach 8.5)

    Effectively a ‘sky ramp’ would make the most expensive, first stage of a rocket fully reusable since the sled is returned to its starting position, to be refueled and may be reused in the order of hours after use.

    Electromagnetic methods (such as Bantam, Maglifter, and StarTram) are another technique investigated to accelerate a rocket before launch, potentially scalable to greater rocket masses and velocities than air launch.

    A launch vehicle requires to achieve about 3,500 mph to reach Lunar orbit and about 5,300 Mph to escape from the Moon into interplanetary space.

    The example of test sledges I linked, used rockets, but Maglev would also work, and would only require electrical power – not fuel!

    The lead time and cost would seem to involve decades and hundreds of billions of dollars. Such questions seem to be left hanging. Answers anyone?

    NASA has already launched Lunar Modules back into Lunar orbit from the Lunar surface.

    It is a relatively simple process of heating and condensation, to extract water from granular material containing ice.

    It is also a simple process to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen, using solar electricity.
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  • Thank you Alan4 for drawing on your broad, technical scientific knowledge to explain how the system would work from start to finish. You have translated the misleading article into an accurate and comprehensive version of the project accessible to the layperson like me. Again many thanks.
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  • 22
    brettcalgary says:

    Thanks Alan, always a pleasure reading your comments and insights, can never seem to disagree with you…..YET. And it has been years.
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  • Melvin
    Jul 26, 2015 at 1:46 am

    This place becomes a large science laboratory and the largest off-Earth producer of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fueling inter-planetary trips.

    Presumably, the robots would mine liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to store in a rocket-fuel depot at the bottom of the crater.

    The popular media likes to make big issues out of “inter-planetary trips”, but profitable basic industrial processes are much nearer home, in Earth orbit.

    There are thousands of very valuable communication and other satellites, which need routine servicing or replacement.

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2108/1

    The ViviSat Mission Extension Vehicle would attach to an existing satellite that is running out of propellant and take over station-keeping and attitude control.

    This can be done by clamping a new engine and control system on to the old satellite, or by sending a robotic tanker vehicle to refuel it.

    Canadian aerospace company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) has proposed a more technically ambitious satellite servicing concept, leveraging its expertise developing the robotic arms for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Its Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) vehicle, unveiled by the company last year, would dock with spacecraft. Instead of simply taking control of it, as with the case of ViviSat’s system, the SIS would use its manipulators to refuel or repair the spacecraft.

    Because or the Moon’s lower gravity, launching fuel from the Moon takes a lot less energy than launching from Earth.

    “We believe there is a ready market” for satellite servicing, said Weston. He noted that about 25 satellites in GEO are retired each year, of which 10 go out of service only because they have run out of propellant. “It is that set of satellites—that were it not for a lack of propellant could continue to do their mission—that we are currently targeting with a basic satellite servicing capability.”

    Richard DalBello, vice president of Intelsat General, gave an example of a satellite that was rescued: Intelsat 603, which had been stranded in low Earth orbit until astronauts on the STS-49 shuttle mission in 1992 retrieved it and attached a new upper stage to allow it to go to GEO, where it still operates today. “I think we’re thinking of retiring that satellite next January,” he said at the WIA conference. “That satellite has made, since its rescue, over $800 million for our company.”
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  • Melvin
    Jul 26, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Once fuel is launched from the Moon to Earth/Moon orbit, it has numerous commercial uses.

    http://www.space.com/25259-robotic-satellite-servicing-nasa-technology.html

    Robotically refueling and maintaining satellites in Earth orbit will allow government agencies and private companies to dramatically extend the lifetime of these valuable communications and scientific assets, advocates say.

    When a satellite launches into geosynchronous Earth orbit these days, propellant makes up about half its mass. Lofting a satellite with only a portion of the fuel it would need to complete its mission, with the ability to inject more propellant in the future, would scale costs down considerably and enable more instruments to be packed aboard.
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  • There is a related development to Luna polar craters here: –

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34504067

    The European and Russian space agencies are to send a lander to an unexplored area at the Moon’s south pole.

    It will be one of a series of missions that prepares for the return of humans to the surface and a possible permanent settlement.

    The spacecraft will assess whether there is water, and raw materials to make fuel and oxygen.

    BBC News has obtained exclusive details of the mission, called Luna 27, which is set for launch in five years’ time.

    The mission is one of a series led by the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, to go back to the Moon.

    One of the first acts of the new head of the European Space Agency, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, was to state that he wants international partners to build a base on the Moon’s far side.

    The initial missions will be robotic. Luna 27 will land on the edge of the South Pole Aitken (SPA) basin. The south polar region has areas which are always dark. These are some of the coldest places in the Solar System. As such, they are icy prisons for water and other chemicals that have been shielded from heating by the Sun.

    According to Dr James Carpenter, Esa’s lead scientist on the project, one of the main aims is to investigate the potential use of this water as a resource for the future, and to find out what it can tell us about the origins of life in the inner Solar System.

    “The south pole of the Moon is unlike anywhere we have been before,” he said.

    “The environment is completely different, and due to the extreme cold there you could find large amounts of water-ice and other chemistry which is on the surface, and which we could access and use as rocket fuel or in life-support systems to support future human missions we think will go to these locations.”
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  • Moving on from the International Space station orbiting Earth, there now seems to be some funding for a new manned space-station orbiting the Moon.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_Orbital_Platform-Gateway

    The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) is a concept for a crew-tended cislunar space station led by the International Space Station partners: ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA and CSA for construction in the 2020s.

    The station would be used as a staging point for the proposed Deep Space Transport, which is a concept of a reusable vehicle that uses electric and chemical propulsion and would be specifically designed for crewed missions to destinations such as Mars.[1][6] If funded, the Gateway will be developed, serviced, and utilized in collaboration with commercial and international partners for use as a staging ground for robotic and crewed lunar surface missions and for travel to Mars.

    On 1 November 2017 NASA commissioned 5 studies lasting four months into affordable ways to develop the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), hopefully leveraging private companies’ plans. These studies had a combined budget of $2.4 million. The companies performing the PPE studies are Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and Space Systems/Loral.[11][8] These awards are in addition of the ongoing set of NextSTEP-2 awards made in 2016 to study development and make ground prototypes of habitat modules that could be used on the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway as well as other commercial applications,[6] so the LOP-G is likely to incorporate components developed under NextSTEP as well.

    Robotic surface operations on the Moon, would be directed by the crew orbiting in the station above.
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  • Meanwhile NASA is also sending a probe to look at a metal asteroid! – A type which may have huge potential for in-space mining and manufacturing! This is basically a 210 kilometres wide ball of solid metal!

    https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/nasa-moves-up-launch-of-psyche-mission-to-a-metal-asteroid

    The Psyche Mission

    Psyche, an asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, is made almost entirely of nickel-iron metal.
    As such, it offers a unique look into the violent collisions that created Earth and the terrestrial planets.

    The Psyche Mission was selected for flight earlier this year under NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of lower-cost, highly focused robotic space missions that are exploring the solar system.

    The scientific goals of the Psyche mission are to understand the building blocks of planet formation and explore first-hand a wholly new and unexplored type of world.
    The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core, and what its surface is like.
    The spacecraft’s instrument payload will include magnetometers, multispectral imagers, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

    For more information about NASA’s Psyche mission go to:

    http://www.nasa.gov/psyche
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  • Alan4discussion #23
    Aug 1, 2015 at 9:23 am

    The popular media likes to make big issues out of “inter-planetary trips”,
    but profitable basic industrial processes are much nearer home, in Earth orbit.

    There are thousands of very valuable communication and other satellites,
    which need routine servicing or replacement.

    So following on from this earlier comment, commercial operations are starting – initially with launches from Earth.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43374855

    **UK-headquartered start-up Effective Space aims to put up its first satellite servicing “drones” in 2020. **

    The company has announced an intent to contract with International Launch Services, which manages the commercial flights of the Russian Proton rocket.

    Two drones will be lofted together.

    Effective Space already has a deal to send the washing-machine-sized systems to go latch on to two satellites that are running out of fuel and take over their station keeping duties.

    This will extend the satellites’ lives and the revenues they supply to their as yet unnamed operator.

    It will be July before pen is officially put to paper on the ILS agreement, but Effective Space says it is keen to use the Russian vehicle because it is one of the few rockets capable of placing payloads directly into a geostationary (“geo”) orbit 36,000km above the Earth.

    Normally, new spacecraft are dropped off in a “transfer” orbit and spend some time lifting themselves to their final destination. But getting on station quickly is important in this instance for Effective Space.

    “This allows us to execute our contract with our first customer on time, because when we launch our first drones directly into ‘geo’ it actually saves us six-to-eight months of orbit-raising,” Arie Halsband, founder and CEO of Effective Space, told BBC News.

    The low-cost drones are designed to be compact (1m x 1m x 1.25m; 400kg) and one way to achieve this is to use electric propulsion.

    This fits in a very small volume and provides thrust by ionising and then ejecting a gas. It is an efficient technology but works best over longer timescales.

    Sending spacecraft to service older satellites has long been talked of as a concept but only now it seems are companies seriously developing business plans to put the idea into practice.

    A big, modern telecommunications satellite can cost upwards of $300m over its 15-year design life, and so for the operator it might make good economic sense simply to attach a small servicing unit to handle manoeuvring tasks when the fuel supply starts to run low – rather than go to the expense of launching an immediate replacement.
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