Monday, August 22, 2022

A fun idea for a moon mission

Lately, I’ve been doing some thinking on what I would do if I had money to burn.  There’s a long list of things I’d do that could be done with a million dollars or so.  But I started thinking what if I had a billion to burn.  And I figured that one thing I’d do would be to privately fund a robotic lunar program.  I am a big supporter of humans returning to the moon to stay, and if I had the money what could I do to help further that goal.  This is what I came up with.

This is the ideal program, but I’m not sure if a private citizen would be able to do part of it.  I’ll get to that.  This program would consist of three types of landers (I’ll call them A, B, and C) all landing in the same area.  There’d be four or five As, as many or more Bs, and one C.  The Bs – and probably the Cs – would all be identical, but the As might have some slight design differences.  In the super ideal program, we’d just keep building these and sending new sets to do science at various locations on the lunar surface. 

So what science would be done?  The A Landers would land and scoop up a large amount of regolith.  It would then mix this with some binding agent and 3D print a … brick.  Well, three bricks.  This first set would probably be the solid bricks we’re used to, but later sets would probably contain voids to minimize the material needed.  And there could be sets with raw regolith, and another set where the regolith is ground to make the particles more uniform.  Further A Landers could have some other processing element, or would use a different binding agent.  I don’t know exactly how much mass could be landed, but each A Lander may only be able to print a dozen or so bricks.

A B Lander would land nearby and two bricks from each set would be loaded into a return capsule.  This would be launched back to Earth where scientists could study the bricks.  The reason you’d want at least two of each type is so you could do destructive testing on one of them.  Depending on how reliable the return capsule is, you might want to only put one brick from a set in each.  And depending on how much mass can be returned, you could also send plain regolith or rock samples back to Earth.

How would these bricks be loaded into the return capsule?  That’s the job of the C Landers, which would be rovers.  Ideally, these would be RTG powered, but I don’t know if a private citizen could buy an RTG, so these rovers might need to be done in a partnership with NASA.  Besides loading the bricks, these rovers could do their own research.  But the reason they need to be RTG powered is so that they can survive for long periods of time so that they check up on the bricks that are left on the moon.  These would be left out and the rover would come by once a month or so and take photos to see how they are standing up to the lunar day/night cycle.  I see the four or five A Landers all landing within ten kilometers of each other.  Once the rover works out a path between all of them, it could just drive itself.  Or, I guess it could move the remaining bricks all to one location and just come back to it after doing its other explorations.  I suppose you could even make a D lander that would just bring more binding agent the rover could take to refill the A Landers. 

The more you think about it, the more ways there are to do things.  But why do this?  Even with gigantic, reusable rockets, it will still costs a lot of money to launch stuff off Earth and land it on the moon.  A lander that prints a structure using regolith will be able to make a larger structure than would have fit on whatever rocket launched that lander.  Yes, the first lunar base will have structures built on Earth, but the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to expand that base will be with lunar bricks.  And while some have made bricks on Earth using simulated lunar regolith, nobody has built bricks on the moon to see how they stand up.  Maybe after a dozen day/night cycles the unprocessed regolith bricks start to flake, which would be good to know before we start building a base from them.

So that’s what I’d do if I had money to burn on a space project.  It’s not flashy, it’s not inspiring, but it would bring us that much closer to being a spacefaring civilization.

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