NIAC Award — Lunar-Polar Propellant Mining Outpost

Lunar-Polar Propellant Mining Outpost (Credit: Joel Sercel)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program
Phase I Award: Up to $125,000 for 9 Months

Lunar-Polar Propellant Mining Outpost (LPMO): Affordable Exploration and Industrialization
Joel Sercel
TransAstra Corporation

The Lunar Polar Gas-Dynamic Mining Outpost (LGMO) (see quad chart graphic) is a breakthrough mission architecture that promises to greatly reduce the cost of human exploration and industrialization of the Moon. LGMO is based on two new innovations that together solve the problem of affordable lunar polar ice mining for propellant production.

The first innovation is based on a new insight into lunar topography: our analysis suggests that there are large (hundreds of meters) landing areas in small (0.5-1.5 km) nearpolar craters on which the surface is permafrost in perpetual darkness but with perpetual sunlight available at altitudes of only 10s to 100s of meters.

In these prospective landing sites, deployable solar arrays held vertically on masts 100 m or so in length (lightweight and feasible in lunar gravity) can provide nearly continuous power. This means that a large lander, such as the Blue Moon vehicle proposed by Blue Origin, a BFR; or a modestly sized lunar ice mining outpost could sit on mineable permafrost with solar arrays in perpetual sunlight on masts providing affordable electric power without the need to separate power supply from the load.

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 can be battery operated and recharge at base or carry a laser receiver powered by a remote laser. 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.

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 or SLS payload faring would mass between 2 and 5 tons and would each be capable of harvesting between 20 and 100 times its mass per year in water.

2019 Phase 1 and Phase II Selections
2011-2019 Consolidated List

  • ThomasLMatula

    Interesting, but folks may be overloading the potential science available from lunar ice deposits. Ice has a tendency to record past environments that were present when it was laid down. Study of cores from it could reveal what the early history of the Solar System was like.

  • Brainbit

    why build 100 m masts in a hole?

  • Enrique Moreno

    I think like you. It is more easy to put the solar array outside the crater and then connect it to the facility by cable…

  • Panice


  • Robert G. Oler

    it is good this is being studied…although it seems farther and farther in the future

  • savuporo

    Would be space-engineers often tend to forget low-tech approaches to many things. Like rolling out a cable.

    Surprised there isn’t some power beaming thingamajig on the illustration here

  • Because you can’t get good sunlight on the surface near the crater edge. You would still need to build a tower 10s of meters tall. Contrary to belief there are no surface locations on the moon that get 100% sunlight. You can get 90%. To get 100 percent you need to be elevated.

  • ThomasLMatula

    This technique like others that have been proposed will destroy them without allowing any opportunity to study them in place. Where are the plans for drilling cores into them and doing research?

  • Paul_Scutts

    Thomas, forget extracting intact drill cores in that environment (30-40 deg K) as there is no such thing as lubrication, it’s nowhere near like arctic/antarctic operation. Same problem as quantum level observation (the observer influences what’s being observed), energy to extract changes the mix. Regards, Paul.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Using energy “drill bits” is practical, 100 metre towers not practical. Harvesters will be self contained, RC operated and nuclear powered with possible RTG back-up. External power cables would be extremely problematical in that superconducting environment. You wouldn’t put humans within cooee of that environment.

  • passinglurker

    I dunno plinking down a telescoping structure on stable ground near your center of operation and ratcheting it up sounds like a simpler solution than expecting man or rover to navigate the lunar surface over to a shorter tower you erected over the hill

  • passinglurker

    You lost me at nuclear rover. As always I’d take a spindly solar mast over uranium for almost any task in the inner solar system.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Space based nuclear fission reactors will be an essential piece of kit for off-Earth operations, IMO, passinglurker. Reliable power, for compact, mobile and solar radiation independent operations. NASA agrees, as it is investing a significant amount of funds for their development. Fusion reactors would be better, but, as I understand it, they are still two to three decades away, LOL. Regards, Paul.

  • passinglurker

    We’re still a ways away from the sort of HSF activity, or space industry that would call for a nuclear reactor. Development efforts should focus on supporting missions to the outer solar system. When NEP probes to Jupiter’s moons become as common as rovers to mars then we can start asking how to safely use one of these things to power a surface base.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I think you mean drilling fluid, but there are designs based on augers that don’t require any. But you would need to know what the regolith is like first.

  • TheBrett

    Especially with the lower gravity – your mast could be a lot lighter in terms of what it needs to elevate the solar panels 100 meters. It honestly might be lighter than a multi-kilometer cable (and easier to deploy).

  • gunsandrockets

    The proposal isn’t science oriented.

    For that matter, would human presence even be useful? or more of a hindrance? for dark crater ice core retrievals?

  • TheBrett

    They definitely should be collecting ice samples for research before they start taking apart the ice layers for fuel (although I’ve always thought the “lunar fuel” idea was overstated – if you’re doing so many missions that supplying large quantities of lunar fuel is a good idea, you’re probably in a position to get it from Near Earth Asteroids and extinct comet cores even easier).

  • gunsandrockets

    A lot depends on the nature of the dark crater, I would presume.

    The proposal seems very specific about an unusual crater type.

  • passinglurker

    The key thing is the bulk of the work (designing and building a 100 meter telesoping tower) is done down here on earth with “cheap” aerospace engineers saving the expensive robots and astronauts the man hours needed to run extra miles of cable.

  • TheBrett

    It’s a pretty small one. If the crater is huge, then it would probably make more sense to use microwave towers and rectennas to transmit power to the base from the solar panel array.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Depends on the complexity of the task. Best option would be a teleoperated robot will humans near by to fix it if needed. In terms of the core itself, that is something you might be better off studying on the Moon itself to reduce risks of contimination to it.

  • Vladislaw

    In retail the mantra for where a store goes is – location, location, location. It will be the same on Luna.

    Where you can plant the FIRST solar arrays on the ground will be the most valuable location at the base start up. You are not going to worry about having to erect 300′ towers to start powering up your site and keeping your Tesla batteries fully charged for unlit periods. So the acres with the most light will be the area were the first power plant will go ..

  • Vladislaw

    Think of a doughnut shaped 3d printer.. with small wheels that just slide up and down the tower .. drop down for filling up the regolith print material and it slides up the tower and starts printing again?

  • Vladislaw

    Why would you want to haul that much weight to Luna from earth? 3d print with Lunar materials…

    New Method for 3-D Printing Extraterrestrial Materials

    “Northwestern University’s Ramille Shah and her Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing (TEAM) Laboratory have demonstrated the ability to 3D-print structures with simulants of Martian and lunar dust. This work uses an extension of their “3D-painting process,” a term that Shah and her team use for their novel 3D inks and printing method, which they previously employed to print hyperelastic “bone”, 3D graphene and carbon nanotubes, and metals and alloys.”

    “For places like other planets and moons, where resources are limited, people would need to use what is available on that planet in order to live,” said Shah, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and of surgery in the Feinberg School of Medicine. “Our 3D paints really open up the ability to print different functional or structural objects to make habitats beyond Earth.”

    “Shah’s research uses NASA-approved lunar and Martian dust simulants, which have similar compositions, particle shapes, and sizes to the dusts found on lunar and Martian surfaces. Shah’s team created the lunar and Martian 3D paints using the respective dusts, a series of simple solvents, and biopolymer, then 3D printed them with a simple extrusion process. The resulting structures are over 90 percent dust by weight.”

    When you only have to haul 10% of the weight and use 90% lunar dust .. I think that is way to go. you can 3d print all your racks to hold your solar sheet panels and just beam electricity to your 3d printers?

  • redneck

    Have to be a bit careful on details of the 3d printing. 90% dust may not be an efficient solution if the structure is inefficient. In some cases, it may be that a structural metal shape will mass less than the 10%terrestrial materials in the printed structure that does the same job..

    Concrete printing as I saw it at the last trade show is horrible. Easy to tell that the unit was designed and built by people with little to no experience in construction. A simple slip form would work better with less development that what I saw.

    3D printing on the moon has promise, just not from people that appear to be clueless about the real world. I would start with a stack-able brick structure with zero terrestrial material in the permanent structure. And be willing to abandon that the instant something better was available.

  • windbourne

    just because it has the shape does not necessarily mean that it has the strength needed.

  • windbourne

    I still think that having 1-3 units in orbit doing power beaming to the landing site will give it the needed power to run robotics, etc. until they can add a bunch of surface based solar. The sbsp does not (and should not) be that big. Just enough to provide the initial energy needed to run robotics while building out the infrastructure. Then later, it can be used in other locations.

  • I can think of one good reason: Because then you don’t have to land on a slope. A lot of the polar crater rims have an angle of repose of about 30°. That’s… dicey to land on.

  • Vladislaw

    True but plenty of iron and titanium …

  • ThomasLMatula

    Lunar water is really a red herring when you start doing the math. Lunar oxygen will give most of the benefits without the constraints of being stuck at the poles. If you have Oxygen you eliminate 80% of the mass needed to be shipped from Earth. The Hydrogen you need to make water could just be shipped to the Moon, either as Hydrogen or in the form of Ammonia. This also eliminates the risks of working near the cold traps. The problem is that folks are still stuck in thinking like they are on Earth. It space it’s mass that is important and you would probably need to lift more mass out of the Earth’s gravity well then you would save from the water generated.

    I would much rather build near a good deposit of PGMs, Aluminum or Titanium. Iron would be good as well. Those are the materials that will be worth money on the Moon for building space infrastructure.

  • redneck

    Had a doh moment at work. At those temps water is a building material that should lend itself well to printing structure.

  • Vladislaw

    Ya I keep hammering away at that. When you look at a junk yard it is simply a metal asset. Metal assets will hold value (relative to location, transportation and demand) no matter where you stack it up. When California was faced with long and expensive transportation they simply put the gold in vaults and hung a sign ..


    I see the same thing for Luna. Especially for “long run” corporations. In the long run if the metal is harvested, assayed, certified and stacked up on Luna, you do not have to transport it back to Earth and it will be an asset in the Corporation’s Ledger. The land it sits on, will be, in effect, owned by the corporation. Look for a scrap yard mentality for the long run winners on Luna.