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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.

YouTube video
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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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky



Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride



The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.



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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park



Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”



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