MAY 25, 2021 — When a rocket launchpad is built on the Moon, there’s a very good chance UTSA will have an important role in making this next phase of space exploration a reality.
Astroport Space Technology, a division of space startup company Exploration Architecture (or XArc) located at Port San Antonio, sees an opportunity to develop technologies for space construction projects on the Moon, Mars and beyond. Astroport has partnered with UTSA to receive a Phase 1 grant from NASA’S Small Business Innovative Research/Small Business Technology Transfer program (SBIR/STTR). Phase 1 provides seed money to small businesses and research institution ventures to develop ideas that support NASA’s future space exploration strategies. The Phase 1 contracts are in the $125,00 range.
The collaboration between UTSA and Astroport involves developing the machinery and materials to build a reusable launching pad on the Moon. UTSA is the only Texas university to be participating in the Phase 1 SBIR/STTR stage.
UTSA professor Alan Whittington and students melt a piece of simulated lunar rock particles in his lab.
To support the lunar launch pad concept, a team of UTSA researchers is undergoing research to design an induction furnace-nozzle for forming and placing lunar regolith bricks for landing pad construction. Before that can happen, scientists need to identify the temperatures in which moon soil liquifies. This material will be used to manufacture the launch pad bricks on the Moon. This work is taking place in a UTSA lab, led by Alan Whittington, professor of geological sciences, who’s also an expert in petrology, the study of rocks. He’s assisted by postdoctoral researcher, Anis Parsapoor.
“The end goal is to produce bricks laid in one more or less seamless step on the surface of the Moon. To do that, there are actually several parts that need to come together,” Whittington said. “One of those parts is melting the regolith or the lunar soil, which was busted up into rock. In our lab, we're studying how much energy is required to melt the soil.”
An added challenge for Whittington and Parsapoor is identifying melting points of two distinct types of lunar materials, along with various mixtures of the two soils. Whittington says the surface of Earth’s Moon is made up largely of plains known as the lunar “mare” (Latin for “seas”), which is made of basalt. On the far side of the moon are the much smaller lunar highlands, comprised primarily of feldspar.
“Depending where you are on the Moon, you're going to have a mixture between those two and because the surface of the Moon is constantly stirred up by the impacts of micro meteorites,” Whittington said. “What we're studying is the energy required to melt and the melting point for different combinations of the material.”
Whittington’s team is using a specialized furnace in the lab to test melting points of very small amounts of simulated lunar samples, less than the size of a pea. From here they have to determine if those melting points will liquify the tons of regolith needed to manufacture enough bricks for an entire launch pad.
“Obviously, we want to make bricks that are much bigger than pea size, so the most interesting thing is figuring out how to make solid bricks large enough to be useful but don’t crack when they cool,” Whittington said. “That is going to be a challenge. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right?”
Several other UTSA research experts are contributing to this first phase of the Astroport project. The launch pad bricks will contain a high concentration of ceramic materials and Ovidio Giberga, associate professor in the UTSA Department of Art and Art History, is advising on ceramic materials and processes. The space bricks need to be incredibly durable, so Arturo Montoya, associate professor of mechanical engineering and associate dean of the UTSA College of Engineering, is testing the mechanical properties of bricks. An induction furnace will be constructed on the Moon to melt lunar materials to form the launch pad bricks, so Sara Ahmed, assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is advising on power supply requirements for the Moon furnace.
The Phase 1 idea grant lasts for 13 months. The UTSA researchers will submit their findings to Astroport within that timeframe. Astroport will provide NASA a final report of the research results. NASA then will award Phase 2 funding worth $750,000 to select projects under the SBIR/STTR program. If Astroport/UTSA collaboration is selected, it will move forward on advancing a prototype of their lunar launchpad construction site.
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