As NASA plans to return humans to the moon with its Artemis mission, the next frontier in space exploration is quietly gathering steam. With Artemis’ long-term goal to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, the effort to make this a reality is beginning to coalesce. Work is already underway on the problem of how to design and construct a functioning lunar base camp. Astroport is the company that has been tasked with the challenge of building the basic infrastructure of NASA’s ambitious Artemis moon base.
Building a functioning moon base is still quite a few years away. Artemis 1 launched on 17 November with the first mission being an uncrewed test mission. The mission suffered several setbacks, having been delayed three times before the successful launch. Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 are planned for 2024 and 2025, respectively, with a tentative date of 2027 for Artemis 4, which will begin the process of constructing the Lunar Gateway.
The Lunar Gateway will be the key to constructing the Artemis moon base, providing an orbital base of operations for missions to transport personnel and equipment to the moon’s surface. The gateway will function much like the International Space Station. However, the gateway station will orbit the moon rather than Earth.
Despite being years from fruition, work has already begun on planning and developing the technologies and infrastructure needed to make the moon base a reality. Sam Ximenes is a space architect and the CEO of Astroport. He spoke to Space Connect about the dynamic challenges his team is facing and the practical realities of building a base on the moon. Ximenes explained that the team has had to get creative when considering what materials to use for the base, as it is impractical to transport raw materials to the moon.
“We’re focusing specifically on land impact construction and the process for how you do that, the civil engineering process, as well as both the technology and the material for the molten regolith, to make the bricks that we have been funded by NASA to produce. We want to learn the ability to produce and use these bricks without a binder or mortar.
“This produces a way to make a flat pavement for the lunar landers, the bigger ones particularly, that NASA is trying to choose right now.
“The whole focus is on space construction and lunar surface construction,” Ximenes said.
Moon regolith will be the primary material used for the construction of the infrastructure on the base. Regolith is a term used to describe “unconsolidated debris” that makes up the majority of the top layer of the moon’s surface. The vast majority of lunar regolith is a fine grey soil but also includes breccia and rock fragments from lunar bedrock. Asked about what the most important first step would be for establishing a moon base, Ximenes highlighted the need for basic and well-tested foundations.
“Right now, we’re just doing inner structures. These are flat foundations, the landing pads and the landing flat, the roads that would be needed. We’re not building habitats at this point … but we’ll get there.
“The landing pad is the first thing you need to think about when you start thinking about a long-term settlement. You need to have that pad as your first infrastructure because of the safety factors that are going to be required for coming and going spacecraft. You need to be able to land safely but also not spray plume blasts all over the lunar assets or go into orbit.”
The concern about dust and plume blasts is one of the most significant issues when considering building on the moon. The dust poses a huge danger to astronauts and equipment, both on the moon and in orbit. Even tiny rocks and particles can travel at great speeds and seriously threaten machinery.
The initial building phase of the moon base will involve moving tonnes of lunar dirt and regolith. The team will have to flatten areas, create berms and use the regolith to make bricks to use for further construction. Shipping tonnes of heavy machinery to the moon is out of the question with today’s launch technology, so the Astroport team has had to come up with another solution for the heavy labour.
“Here on Earth, you need to use weight to move the dirt, so you use the weight of heavy machinery, tractors and excavators. However, on the moon, you only have one-sixth of gravity, so you don’t have that weight.
“Another way of moving that dirt was lightweight robots. And this is all an autonomous process. One of the things we’re working with is an excavator that digs a little at a time but also has enough capacity to move the amount of dirt needed.
“We have a licence from NASA for evaluating an excavator that they have developed, called a RASSOR. They’ve allowed us to take that basic design and try and assess some new ways of implementing it.”
Using autonomous robots will be necessary for the first phases of construction, prior to there being an established and habitable moon base. The use of these robots, autonomous and remote-controlled, will massively decrease the risk to human life posed by the ambitious project. The environment of space and the moon is harsh enough without subjecting humans to hundreds of hours of physical labour. Ximenes spoke about the need to strike the right balance between autonomous robots and human intervention that the team was grappling with.
“Right now, we’re looking for level five autonomy. That’s a hard goal. We’re designing the system currently, and right now, we’re at the point of concept of operations. So we’re asking the questions, what processes do we need? What’s the set-up time? What kind number of tools and what kind of tools do we need? How many robots to do that with? How many spares do we bring along?
“All of this is ideally autonomous, but I think it’s going to be some combination of human and robot working together.”
“I think that in the very beginning, the initial set-up, that’s probably autonomous. As we get into laying down the structure, we’ll probably think of some sort of human-robot team.”
Whether it is humans, robots, or, more than likely, a combination of the two, the construction of the lunar base will be a long and arduous process. While the moon is considered close to home in astronomical standards, the environment is still classified as deep space. Building an environment for humans to live and work on the planet’s surface permanently will be extremely challenging. It is a task worth pursuing, as it will provide NASA and the private space industry supporting the Artemis mission with a wealth of experience in off-Earth construction and habitation. A skill that will be much in demand when humanity strives to reach the Red Planet.
Liam McAneny is a journalist who has written and edited for his University International Relations journal. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) and Bachelor of Laws from the University of Wollongong in 2021. He joined Momentum Media in 2022 and currently writes for SpaceConnect and Australian Aviation. Liam has a keen interest in geopolitics and international relations as well as astronomy.
Send Liam an email at: [email protected]
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