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NASA chooses Missouri S&T for moon infrastructure project

Sam O'Keefe
Missouri S&T
Leslie Gertsch, an associate professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, works with meteorite samples in her lab. Missouri S&T received a grant from NASA to research space mining.

Missouri University of Science and Technology is one of three universities NASA chose for a project to develop technologies so scientists can eventually live and work on the moon.

The university will receive up to a $2 million grant to research resource extraction from the moon as part of NASA’s new Artemis project, intended to return astronauts to the moon for longer-term missions.

Each of the three universities is developing infrastructure technology that will help humans form what is basically a research community on the moon.

Missouri S&T is focusing on lunar mining. The Colorado School of Mines will develop autonomous construction technology to build landing pads, and Auburn University will create electronics that can function in extremely cold temperatures, like those working during lunar nights.

"Creating the technologies we need to explore the Moon requires leveraging expertise from and partnering with academia and industry alike," said Dr. Prasun Desai, deputy associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., in a press release. "These projects show the integral role that universities will play in building humanity's sustainable presence on the Moon."

Space mining is a hybrid of two fields — mining engineering and aerospace engineering. Missouri S&T is known for both, said Leslie Gertsch, an associate professor of geological engineering who is leading S&T’s initiative.

The field is important because it is so expensive to transport materials from Earth to the moon, or wherever else they may eventually be needed in space.

“We need to be living somewhere else, and we can't do that by launching everything we need from the Earth, like a gigantically expensive camping trip,” she said.

Gertsch and her team will use magnets and other technologies to separate minerals that contain aluminum and calcium from the moon’s soil. Eventually, these materials could be used to build the things that will be needed for long-term lunar exploration.

NASA describes Artemis as “the first step in the next era of human exploration,” and the agency hopes to use what it learns on the moon to eventually send the first astronauts to Mars.

“If we can learn to know the various ways of working and living on the moon, it will be easier to adapt to Mars and to other places in the Solar System,” Gertsch said.

This type of research in environments that are not on Earth could also help us learn more about the science behind our daily lives.

“It will be fascinating to get a broader range of conditions to understand these physical processes that we have to make work for us,” Gertsch said. “What more can we understand about the way physics works if we have another data point besides this one particularly special planet? That is going to be so utterly fascinating. I wish I could be around when we figure those things out.”

This project is scheduled to start in mid-May and last for two years.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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