Building Safe and Cost-Effective Lunar Landing Pads: A Key Component in the New Space Race
As the United States gears up for its return to the moon as part of the Artemis missions, establishing a moon base will be critical to maintaining a presence in the new space race. A crucial component of this base will be the construction of landing pads that can ensure safe and cost-effective landings for spacecraft. The moon’s environment, which lacks air to slow down the rocket plume, poses a challenge as landing pads must prevent lunar dust and particles from sandblasting everything around them at more than 10,000 miles per hour during takeoff or landing.
The question of how to build these landing pads is one that has puzzled scientists and space experts alike. The cost of hauling heavy equipment and materials more than 230,000 miles into space is prohibitive, making it a challenging task. However, researchers at the University of Central Florida, in collaboration with Arizona State University and defense and space manufacturing company Cislune, are on a mission to find the best solution to this problem.
The team, funded by NASA, has been working to find ways to build lunar landing pads that are safe, cost-effective, and easy to construct in space. After analyzing four different construction methods, including different combinations for inner and outer landing pad rings, the team has found that a method that uses microwaves to melt lunar soil, coupled with UCF’s desciation, or sorting, technology, may be the most suitable solution.
The microwave-based melting or sintering method was found to be the most cost-effective solution as long as the cost of transportation to the moon remains above $100,000 per kilogram (about $45,000 per pound), according to a recent study published in the journal New Space and a report submitted to NASA. The cost-effectiveness of this method is further enhanced by the UCF-developed desciation technology, which uses magnetic fields to bring the most microwavable minerals to the surface. UCF researchers designed this technology after discovering that many of the most microwavable minerals are also the most magnetic. This was documented in the report submitted to NASA.
“We’ve shown that we can increase microwave absorption by somewhere in the range of 70% to 80% by sorting particles based on magnetic susceptibility,” says Phil Metzger, a co-author of the research and planetary scientist at the Florida Space Institute based at UCF. The construction process could be carried out by rovers that would scoop soil, sort it with magnetic fields, layer it back down to the surface, and melt it with microwaves.
The study also found that the second-most-cost-effective method when transportation costs are above $100,000 per kilogram would be paver-based landing pads. Once transportation costs drop below $100,000 per kilogram, due to economies of scale and rocket reusability, polymer-based landing pads become a more competitive method for constructing the outer part of the landing pad than sintering and pavers. However, each of the methods has trade-offs in terms of energy and construction costs, which must be considered.
Erik Franks, founder and CEO of Cislune, notes that surface construction on the moon and Mars is very different from construction on Earth. “Concrete and steel are used extensively on Earth and have come about from millennia of development and scaling up of industry based upon plentiful water, coal, and air. On other planets, we don’t have any fossil fuels, and air and water are more valuable than gold. Different processes will be required, and UCF and Cislune are working together to solve these problems with innovative solutions like
sintering with microwaves and desiccation technology,” he says.
The success of building safe and cost-effective lunar landing pads is essential for the success of the Artemis missions and future lunar activities. The moon’s harsh environment, lack of air, and the cost of transporting heavy equipment and materials to the lunar surface make this task a challenging one. However, with the innovative solution of using microwaves to melt lunar soil and UCF’s desiccation technology, the team at UCF, Arizona State University, and Cislune may have found a cost-effective and efficient solution.
This solution will not only support the Artemis missions, but also pave the way for future space exploration and the establishment of sustainable lunar settlements. The ability to safely land spacecraft on the moon is essential for delivering personnel, supplies, and equipment to support these activities, and the construction of cost-effective landing pads is a critical component in the new space race. The work of the UCF, ASU, and Cislune team demonstrates the importance of collaboration and innovation in solving complex problems in the field of space exploration, and offers a glimpse into the future of lunar construction and operations.