NASA Funds R&D Projects for Lunar Construction Technology

Astronaut working on the moon (Credit: NASA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the moon, the spaced agency is funding a series of research and development (R&D) projects focused on turning lunar regolith into landing pads, blast shields and other useful structures.

NASA recently selected four R&D projects for funding under its Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR)  program. The projects, which partner small businesses with academia, will each receive up to $150,000 apiece for studies lasting 13 months.

Astroport and the University of Texas at San Antonio are working to develop a BrickLayer system for building lunar launch and landing pads (LLPs).

“The BrickLayer uses feedstock of raw regolith to produce bricks in a single-step lunar regolith melting, brick forming and placement method without use of grouts or mortar for landing pad creation, or for any flat hardened surface area such as roads or foundations,” the proposal summary said.

“To enable the brickmaking process, our proposed innovation is a multi-step process of regolith works executed by multiple machines operating autonomously or in remote control mode with step sequencing/timing to enable machine-to-machine collaboration. The process includes construction system components using two separate mobility platform types, one for landing zone site preparation and another for LLP production,” the summary added.

Cislune has teamed with the University of Central Florida (UCF) to develop a set of technologies aimed at extracting and processing lunar regolith for use in building structures.

“Cislune and UCF propose a site preparation architecture that relies upon in-situ resources and a small number of rovers and excavators working as a swarm to build durable lunar surfaces with size-sorted and then compacted lunar regolith. Efficient manipulation of bulk regolith via size-sorting and compaction is the most efficient architecture for lunar site preparation,” the proposal said.

Contour Crafting Corp. and the University of Southern California are teaming to develop a conveyance system known as CrafTram that would be capable of performing the task of moving lunar regolith that on Earth are performed by loaders or trucks.

“All material conveyance equipment for Earth work are generally too large, and heavy and hence their design is not suitable for being flown to the Moon and operated there. Furthermore, such equipment are power-hungry and infeasible to operate using the limited energy sources accessible on the Moon,” the proposal summary said.

The autonomous CrafTram would be super lightweight and compact, foldable to fit into a rocket cargo compartment, use a small amount of energy, and be capable of transporting material between different elevations both uphill and downhill.

Lunar Outpost is teaming with Michigan Technological University and Masten Space Systems to develop “a set of analytical tools, which will take such parameters as lander size and payload weight, and return a set of optimal structures to build as well as strategies for their construction, including layer-based geometries, compaction levels and verification, and more.

“Additionally, a set of construction tools (scrapers, compacters, etc.) will be recommended for use with Lunar Outpost rovers for In-Situ Resource Utilization of the present regolith for construction of infrastructure. A Concept of Operations describing the timeline, equipment, and procedures for this construction will also be developed under the scope of this proposal,” the document said.  

The four proposal summaries follow.

Lunar Surface Site Preparation for Landing/Launch Pad and Blast Shield Construction
Subtopic Title: Lunar Surface Site Preparation

Astroport Space Technologies, Inc.
San Antonio, Texas    

The University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas

Principal Investigator: Sam Ximenes

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 4

Duration: 13 months

Technical Abstract

This proposal builds on our NASA funded prototype BrickBot for technology demonstration as the first step in creating a BrickLayer system for building a lunar Launch/Landing Pad (LLP). The BrickLayer uses feedstock of raw regolith to produce bricks in a single-step lunar regolith melting, brick forming and placement method without use of grouts or mortar for landing pad creation, or for any flat hardened surface area such as roads or foundations.

The LLP production platform is a variation of the All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE), a six-legged robotic lunar rover developed by NASA. The ATHLETE platform functions interchangeably for our Bricklayer production system and our Regolith Particle Acquisition and Containment (RegoPAC) system, utilized for LLP blast shield construction.

Potential NASA Applications

  • Reliable Launch and Landing Pads surface access for the CLPS and ARTEMIS missions.
  • Processes and equipment can be used for many planar structures for Moon and Mars infrastructure construction, i.e., foundations and roads                            

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Construction, e.g., DOD / FEMA forward deployment in remote / hazardous sites
  • Surface mining
  • Environmental clean-up
  • Debris removal at nuclear power plants and other hazardous sites
  • Land reclamation
  • Dry bulk loose commodities handling in warehouses, distribution centers, storage (e.g., fertilizer, grain, etc.)

Cislune Regolith Pathways and Landing Pads
Subtopic Title: Lunar Surface Site Preparation

Cislune Company
Alhambra, Calif.

The University of Central Florida Board of Trustees
Orlando, Fla.

Principal Investigator: Erik Franks

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 2
End: 4

Duration: 13 months

Technical Abstract

Cislune and UCF propose a site preparation architecture that relies upon in-situ resources and a small number of rovers and excavators working as a swarm to build durable lunar surfaces with size-sorted and then compacted lunar regolith. Efficient manipulation of bulk regolith via size-sorting and compaction is the most efficient architecture for lunar site preparation. We will test compaction techniques on various combinations of regolith simulant size fractions to determine the maximum strength available from compressed regolith. We will also do PSI and CFD modeling to determine requirements for landing spacecraft to determine where compressed regolith can be used.

Potential NASA Applications

Site preparation will be required on the Moon and Mars as landing sites are developed for robotic and human missions. NASA is considering the lunar South Pole of the Moon with PSR’s for water ice, peaks of eternal light for power and heat, and continuous line-of-sight to the Earth for communications which will make it the focus of intensive and repeated robotic and human operations. Crew safety is significantly improved with landing pads and a reduction in ejecta.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Improvements to autonomous site preparation, including surveying, grading, excavation, and compaction are extremely relevant for the terrestrial construction industry. Global construction is a $22 trillion dollar industry annually which is chronically understaffed. Autonomy is being invested in heavily here on Earth, and the lessons from lunar operations can accelerate development.

Novel Payload Conveyance System – Demonstration in Planetary Berm Construction     
Subtopic Title: Lunar Surface Site Preparation

Contour Crafting Corporation
El Segundo, Calif.

University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.                                     

Principal Investigator: Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 2
End: 4

Duration: 13 months

Technical Abstract

The focus of this STTR solicitation is construction of lunar infrastructure elements using bulk regolith and rock. The key requirement of all such construction operations will be a practical and versatile technology for effective regolith and rock conveyance which can operate in a variety of conditions and for a variety of lunar applications at highest possible energy efficiency.

All material conveyance equipment for Earth work are generally too large, and heavy and hence their design is not suitable for being flown to the Moon and operated there. Furthermore, such equipment are power-hungry and infeasible to operate using the limited energy sources accessible on the Moon. While traditional loader or truck would have to make return trips empty, CrafTram would eliminate the need for such back and forth transport of a vehicle. It is expected that CrafTram’s low energy demand would allow for this continuous production.

Proposed is a novel autonomous material conveyance system called CrafTram, offering the following advantages:

  • Is super lightweight and compact as compared to alternative to other material conveyance options,
  • It folds to a compact size to take minimal space in the rocket cargo compartment,
  • Is self-expanding upon deployment on lunar surface,
  • Is capable of transporting material to and from different elevations including sharp uphill or downhill trajectories
  • Uses the least possible amount of energy among all other alternatives for material conveyance.
  • Operates smoothly with minimum wear, regardless of sandy or rocky terrains,
  • Can convey material along sharp uphill or downhill trajectories.

The proposed effort includes analysis and design of the novel CrafTram system, and creation of a TRL 4 functioning 1/3 scale prototype of the technology. The proposed effort at the RI further includes analysis and design of a berm as the choice for demonstration structure. The CrafTram prototype is also expected to be tested in constructing a 1/3 scale berm section.

Potential NASA Applications

The proposed technology is a generic material conveyance system applicable to all regolith work activities, including the following NASA priorities:

  • Bulk regolith-based launch/landing zones
  • Rocket PSI ejecta and blast protection structures (e.g., berms)
  • Regolith base and subgrade for hardened landing pads
  • Pathways for improved trafficability
  • Radiation shielding structures.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Other applications are all terrestrial construction activities such as wet concrete delivery from concrete trucks or mixers to multiple desired locations. CrafTram also eliminates the need for energy hungry concrete pumps and long pipes which result in significant loss of material at the end of operation.

Another application is in automated storage and retrieval system as practiced in warehousing.

Design and Implementation Tools for Lunar Surface Regolith Structure Construction
Subtopic Title: Lunar Surface Site Preparation

Lunar Outpost, Inc.
Golden, Colo.

Michigan Technological University
Houghton, Mich.

Principal Investigator: Paul van Susante

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 1
End: 3

Duration: 13 months

Technical Abstract

To facilitate the return of humans to the moon in the next several years, consideration must be given to various types of infrastructure that will be required. Navigational features are promising for accurate and repeatable vehicle landings. Durable landing pads will be able to ensure stable landing and to prevent erosion of landing sites and sand-blasted abrasion of any nearby structures. Berms to deflect ejecta and particulate matter from landings are also of interest, as are numerous other similar structures. At a lower level, it is important to consider not only what structures are needed but which are possible, and how they will be constructed.

To accomplish this, Lunar Outpost together with Masten Space Systems and Michigan Technological University propose a set of analytical tools, which will take such parameters as lander size and payload weight, and return a set of optimal structures to build as well as strategies for their construction, including layer-based geometries, compaction levels and verification, and more. Additionally, a set of construction tools (scrapers, compacters, etc.) will be recommended for use with Lunar Outpost rovers for In-Situ Resource Utilization of the present regolith for construction of infrastructure. A Concept of Operations describing the timeline, equipment, and procedures for this construction will also be developed under the scope of this proposal.                                                

Potential NASA Applications

The proposed design and implementation tools for lunar surface regolith infrastructure fill a NASA strategic knowledge gap, applying lunar civil engineering technologies to produce bulk regolith structures, some of the first applications of lunar infrastructure. The design and implementation tools proposed herein therefore represent a building block of the entire future lunar infrastructure, applicable to human exploration, campaign science, and scaling of ISRU from small technology demonstrations to large-scale, operationally-useful resources.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Commercial operators need confidence in landing site properties as landing frequency increases. Infrastructure impacts the cost of surface ops, a critical metric in evaluating the market opportunity for economic activity. Thus, this research increases the confidence level of projections of the cislunar economy, impacting space companies’ ability to raise capital and pursue their business plan.