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Artemis 1 is off—and we’re a step closer to using moon dirt for construction in space




Credit: John Raoux

NASA has just launched its first rocket in the Artemis program, which will, among other things, take scientific experiments to produce metal on the moon.

In recent years, a number of businesses and organizations have ramped up efforts to establish technologies on the moon. But doing work in is expensive. Sending just one kilogram of material to the moon can cost US$1.2 million (A$1.89 million).

What if we could save money by using the resources that are already there? This process is called in-situ resource utilization, and it’s exactly what astrometallurgy researchers are trying to achieve.


Why the moon?

The moon has amazing potential for future space exploration. Its gravity is only one-sixth as strong as Earth’s, which makes it much easier to fly things from the moon to Earth’s orbit than to fly them direct from Earth! And in an industry where every kilogram costs a fortune, the ability to save money is extremely attractive.

Although people have been looking at making oxygen and in space for decades, the Artemis program marks the first time we have solid plans to make and use in space.

A number of companies are looking at extracting metals and oxygen from moon dirt. At first these will be demonstrations, but eventually moon metal will be a viable option for construction in space.

As a researcher in this field, I expect that in about 10 to 20 years from now we’ll have demonstrated the ability to extract metals from the moon, and will likely be using these to construct large structures in space. So exactly what will we be able to extract? And how would we do it?

Artemis 1 is off—and we're a step closer to using moon dirt for construction in space
On a clear night, you can see the Moon’s two geologic regions – the darker maria and the lighter highlands. Credit: Shutterstock

What’s out there?

There are two main geological regions on the moon, both of which you can see on a clear night. The dark areas are called the maria and have a higher concentration of iron and titanium. The light areas are called the highlands (or terrae) and have more aluminum.

In general, the dirt and rocks on the moon contain silicon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium and manganese. That might sound like a mouthful, but it’s not really that much to choose from. There are some other trace elements, but dealing with those is a spiel for another day.

We know metals such as iron, aluminum and titanium are useful for construction. But what about the others?

Well, it turns out when you have limited options (and the alternative is spending a small fortune), scientists can get pretty creative. We can use silicon to make solar panels, which could be a primary source of electricity on the moon. We could use magnesium, manganese and chromium to make metal alloys with interesting properties, and sodium and potassium as coolants.

There are also studies looking at using the reactive metals (aluminum, iron, magnesium, titanium, silicon, calcium) as a form of battery or “energy carrier“. If we really needed to, we could even use them as a form of solid rocket fuel.

So we do have options when it comes to sourcing and using metals on the moon. But how do we get to them?

How would extraction work?

Artemis 1 is off—and we're a step closer to using moon dirt for construction in space
Researchers at the University of Glasgow used an electrolysis separation process to get a pile of metal (right) from simulated Moon dirt (left). Credit: Beth Lomax/University of Glasgow

While the moon has metals in abundance, they’re bound up in the rocks as oxides—metals and oxygen stuck together. This is where astrometallurgy comes in, which is simply the study of extracting metal from space rocks.

Metallurgists use a variety of methods to separate metals and oxygen from within rocks. Some of the more common extraction methods use chemicals such as hydrogen and carbon.

Some such as “electrolytic separation” use pure electricity, while more novel solutions involve completely vaporizing the rocks to make metal. If you’re interested in a full rundown of lunar astrometallurgy you can read about it in one of my research papers.

Regardless of the method used, extracting and processing metals in space presents many challenges.

Some challenges are obvious. The moon’s relatively weak gravity means traction is basically nonexistent, and digging the ground like we do on Earth isn’t an option. Researchers are working on these problems.

There’s also a lack of important resources such as water, which is often used for metallurgy on Earth.

Other challenges are more niche. For instance, one moon day is as long as 28 Earth days. So for two weeks you have ample access to the Sun’s power and warmth … but then you have two weeks of night.

Temperatures also fluctuate wildly, from 120℃ during the day to -180℃ at night. Some permanently shadowed areas drop below -220℃! Even if resource mining and processing were being done remotely from Earth, a lot of equipment wouldn’t withstand these conditions.

Artemis 1 took off spectacularly just after 5pm AEDT on November 16.

That brings us to the human factor: would people themselves be up there helping out with all of this?

Probably not. Although we’ll be sending more people to the moon in the future, the dangers of meteorite impacts, from the Sun, and mean this work will need to be done remotely. But controlling robots hundreds of thousands of kilometers away is also a challenge.

It’s not all bad news, though, as we can actually use some of these factors to our advantage.

The extreme vacuum of space can reduce the energy requirements of some processes, since a vacuum helps substances vaporize at lower temperatures (which you can test by trying to boil water on a tall mountain). A similar thing happens with molten rocks in space.

And while the moon’s lack of atmosphere makes it uninhabitable for humans, it also means more access to sunlight for and direct solar heating.

While it may take a few more years to get there, we’re well on our way to making things in space from metal. Astrometallurgists will be looking on with keen interest as future Artemis missions take off with the tools to make this happen.

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Artemis 1 is off—and we’re a step closer to using moon dirt for construction in space (2022, November 17)
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Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight



In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.

Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.

The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.

“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”


At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.

“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”

He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.

“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”

To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.

Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.


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Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes



Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms

Dr. David Kamanda Ngugi, environmental microbiologist at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ


Leibniz Institute DSMZ


An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.

Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.

Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.

Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances:

Press contact:
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300

About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees.

PhDr. Sven David Mueller, M.Sc.
Leibniz-Institut DSMZ
+49 531 2616300
email us here
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Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists



Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.

“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.

“What is the origin of the universe?”

And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.

Ten thousand light-sensitive cameras send data to scientists watching for evidence of a neutrino bumping into another particle. (Tom Howell/CBC)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.

This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.

The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.

Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.

A digital image of a sphere that is blue and transparent with lines all over.
The neutrino detector is at the heart of the SNO+ experiment. An acrylic sphere containing ‘scintillator’ liquid is suspended inside a larger water-filled globe studded with 10,000 light-sensitive cameras. (Submitted by SNOLOAB)

Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.

Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.

Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.

It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.

A screengrab of two scientists wearing white hard hat helmets, clear googles and blue safety suits standing on either side of CBC producer holding a microphone. All three people are laughing.
IDEAS producer Tom Howell (centre) joins research scientist Erica Caden (left) and Benjamin Tam on a video call from their underground lab. (Screengrab: Nicola Luksic)

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.

Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.

Blaire Flynn is the senior education and outreach officer at SNOLAB.

Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.

*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.


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