Artist’s impression of APL’s Lunar Vertex rover. In the future lunar economy, foundries could recycle scrap metal from similar scientific hardware after the end of its useful life. Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Lunar Outpost/Ben Smith

Within the decade, NASA plans to return humans to the moon and begin constructing the lunar surface infrastructure that will allow prolonged exploration and future commercial missions.

The Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel has spent the last four years laying groundwork on Earth to make it all happen.

At the LSIC’s 2024 Spring Meeting in April, representatives from international space agencies and their commercial partners gathered at APL to share progress, network, and learn from each other.

“I’ve been excited about the idea of working with the international community to make sure when we go back to the moon we do it together with all of humanity,” said Rachel Klima, director emeritus of the LSIC. “We’re not going as the United States to plant a flag, but to help humanity expand into the solar system.”

The goal of NASA’s ongoing Artemis campaign is to advance exploration of the moon and ultimately Mars, driving scientific discovery and technological advancement.

“We will learn to live and work on another world,” said Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator. “Investigations in deep space will enhance our understanding of the universe and our place in it. What is done, how it’s accomplished and who participates will affect our world quality of life and humanity’s future.”

Demonstrated market

Ben Bussey, chief scientist for Texas-based Intuitive Machines, said roughly 50% of the past and planned lunar payloads consigned to his company and Astrobotic of Pittsburgh are commercial, demonstrating market demand for commercial lunar landers.

“We’re now seeing space agencies come directly to us rather than going through NASA,” he said.

Beyond the landers, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s 10-year Lunar Architecture Capability Study, dubbed LunA-10, is aimed at moving from isolated scientific efforts to shareable, scalable, inter-operational systems that minimize the lunar footprint.

“At the fall meeting we unveiled a consortium of LunA-10 performers organized into key services that we thought might be able to be monetized over the next 10 years,” said Michael Nayak, DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office program manager.

Those areas include power, mining and construction, transit and mobility, communications, and position, navigation and timing capabilities.

Among other capabilities, the lander node proposed by Blue Origin Enterprises could provide power wirelessly to mobile users, Nayak said.

Cislunar Industries is developing a foundry to process aluminum and iron extracted from regolith and also recycle scrap metal from defunct lunar hardware, he added, while Austin-based ICON is developing a process to construct lunar landing pads and Northrop Grumman is working on a lunar railway concept. 

Even before lunar exploration gets underway, Nayak said innovative thought is going into the possibilities for materials reuse and repurposing, and the choreography of activities to ensure that any heat generated as a byproduct in one process gets put to use in other processes that need it.

Showcasing technology

A wide range of partner companies highlighted their products and services during the LSIC Spring Meeting’s technology showcase.

Vlada Stimenkovic, senior director of Space Resources for Blue Origin, said the Blue Alchemist technology his company is developing will utilize regolith to build solar panels and aluminum wire.

Madison Feehan, founder and CEO of Space Copy, reported on her company’s progress in lunar additive manufacturing that uses regolith for precision tooling and the construction of 3D printed parts.

AJ Gemer, cofounder of Colorado-based Lunar Outpost, said two of his company’s lunar rovers will launch on upcoming Intuitive Machines missions later this year. One will support APL’s Lunar Vertex lander, which will investigate the swirling patterns of light and dark material at the moon’s Reiner Gamma location.

“We worked with an APL team to get that rover through integration and testing, and delivered it to Intuitive Machines earlier this year,” Gemer said.  

Other technologies were highlighted in presentations by Mission Control of Canada, which operates a reconfigurable lunar landscape laboratory used for autonomous robotics testing; and Motive Space Systems’ robotic Cold Operable Lunar Deployment Arm, which can operate in temperatures below 100 degrees Kelvin without heaters.

Framework first

Elizabeth Hyde, an aerospace engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey, represented the LunA-10 government integration team and presented a framework of what a possible lunar economy could look like.

“Everybody likes to ask, ‘What is the gold nugget?’” Hyde said. “What I will say is that before gold was discovered [in California and Alaska], other economic drivers built the infrastructure first and made it easier for the rush to begin when gold actually was discovered.”

With that in mind, she said, the initial economic framework will be built around the extraction of oxygen and water.

“We’re not claiming what’s going to go beyond that,” Hyde said. “Any market that pops up after that will be able to use this infrastructure. [A] sustainable lunar economy will be economically positive, converging to a state with little up-mass from Earth, and will be cooperative, international, and interoperable.”