UA moon mission lands NASA funding for no ‘minor’ feat

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Dec. 6, 2021 at 7:48 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A team at the University of Arizona is digging into new territory thanks to a half million dollars in funding from NASA.

UA aerospace and mining engineers are collaborating to map out a plan to mine on the moon.

Jekan Thanga is an associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona.

“The ultimate goal is permanent settlement. A second home apart from Earth, on the moon,” Thanga said.

Thanga heads the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTRex) Laboratory and the NASA-supported ASTEROIDS (Asteroid Science, Technology, and Exploration research Organized by Inclusive eDucation Systems) Laboratory.

Thanga said he started exploring the idea of creating a second home on the moon when he was in school, so this project is more than 20 years in the works.

So, what would a home on the moon look like?

“The goal is to have full-sized sandbags that are modern, not something you would get for the past decades, used for emergencies, floods. That is one of the projects the students are looking into,” Thanga said.

Thanga said with limited water and extreme conditions on the moon, sandbags may be the best option for rapid homes and shelters.

The team said their autonomous robots could do the building.

“What we are trying to do is have robots do the dirty, the dull, the dangerous. That way humans are focused on the most interesting things,” Thanga said.

Thanga said he is closer than ever to launching these robots thanks to the collaboration of the UA’s Department of Mining and Geological Engineering.

Moe Momayez is the interim head of the department who says he’s ready for the challenge.

“We need the lunar mining to use the moon as a base to launch missions to other planetary bodies,” Momayez said.

“I never thought that I would do mining on the moon, but I am an avid Star Trekker, and I can talk for hours about the aspirations I got from Star Trek. It helped me develop a few technologies,” Momayez said.

The moon’s extreme conditions present plenty of obstacles.

“Temperatures rise up plus 200 degrees in the hot sun, or below 150 in the nighttime. The other factors of course are the high radiation and then you have the lunar dust, which is very fine; it’s billions of years old, it’s very glassy like,” Thanga said.

“Even the Apollo astronauts had a lot of difficulty dealing with these conditions,” Thanga said.

Not to mention limited resources like water and air, which mining requires a lot of, at least for now.

“The excitement for me is to find new ways to break rocks more efficiently with very little water,” Momayez said.

Momayez said lunar mining is the way of the future, and worth the investment.

By learning how to mine with limited resources on the moon, these experts said they could discover a more economical and productive method to use here on Earth.

The team said their development of modern sandbags could also be used as emergency shelters on Earth.

“Aerospace, particularly the space program, is going through another golden age now so we are super excited about that. With this whole lunar effort, I think what is most important is for the U.S. government to have a firm plan that we are returning,” Momayez said.

NASA granted the team $500,000 to spend toward advancing space mining methods.

Yinan Xu is a master’s student at the University of Arizona whose main focus is on robotic arms.

His resume, which includes his role in this project, landed him an internship working on robotic arms at the very agency helping to fund this mission.

“Yeah, I got an internship at NASA. I am super excited; I have never been there before and it’s also it’s NASA,” Xu said.

As for their timeline, they team hopes the robots could be ready to go within the next 10 years.

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