Drilling automation

ESA, Roscosmos To Mine Oxygen, Water from Moon Rocks as NASA Eyes First Artemis Lunar Mission

When humankind returns to the Moon to establish colonies it will be bringing with it technologies born in the oil and mining industries. The European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos will be central to that effort as they prepare to land a robotic drilling system to extract oxygen and water from frozen lunar soil.

An artist’s conception of NASA’s Artemis Lunar Base.
Source: ESA/Pierre Carril.

Drilling engineers who mine the earth for petroleum and mineral resources may be plying their trade on the Moon, asteroids, and Mars sooner rather than later.

This is not a remake of the 1998 Hollywood movie, “Armageddon,” in which Bruce Willis leads a ragtag team of oilfield drillers into space to detonate a Texas-size asteroid before it collides with the earth.

This is real. The European Space Agency (ESA) is partnering with Russia’s Roscosmos and private industry to land an ESA-designed robotic drill and laboratory in 2025 to collect and process volatiles (elements and compounds that vaporize in a vacuum) from regolith at the lunar south pole.

The project supports the aim of NASA’s 2024 mission to land astronauts in the same lunar region to survey the site of the future Artemis Base Camp which will require not only the oxygen that ESA and Roscosmos hope to exploit, but water as well.

Regolith is the loose unconsolidated rock and dust that sits atop a layer of bedrock. Earth’s regolith includes biologically active soil in which plants grow. On the Moon, regolith is also key to sustaining life—animal life—given that approximately 45% of its weight is oxygen, bonded to metals such as iron and titanium.

ESA calls its robotic drill and miniature laboratory package “Prospect” and has created the main navigation system for the Russian lander, Luna-27, which will carry Prospect to the Moon.

According to ESA’s website, “The drill, called ProSEED, is a percussion drill capable of drilling up to two meters into the regolith to collect ice-bearing material. Demonstrations of this drill have shown that it is powerful enough to collect very fine dust from icy regolith-simulants ranging in size from gravel to fine dust.

“Once material is collected, it will be processed in an analysis suite called ProSPA. This laboratory will parse out the chemical composition of the ice from the fine dust. In addition to being lightweight and compact, this lab is fully automated. Meteorites were used to test the instrument on Earth.”

The Leonardo laboratories in Nerviano, and at the University of Padova in Italy tested the drill in simulated lunar conditions—temperatures of approximately -150°C and low pressure. The drill collected samples (crushing rocks composed of gravel to fine dust frozen with varying water/ice content) and transferred the material to the ProSPA lab and Russian robotic arm.

“The drill proved to be powerful enough to dig deep into hard material and collect very fine dust. We are very happy to move on to the next phase and work on accommodating Prospect on the lander,” Igor Mitrofanov, Luna-27 mission scientist from the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IKI) commented on ESA’s site.

And downstream, ESA is supporting a British company, Metalysis, to develop methods of separating oxygen from the oxides it creates when it bonds with metals. Metalysis already makes machines that do this on Earth; the challenge now is to adapt the technology and equipment to manufacture oxygen on the Moon from regolith, leaving behind aluminum, iron, and other metal powders for building materials.

“The process submerges the oxygen-containing material in a bath of molten salt and then runs an electric current through the combined salt and regolith,” ESA noted. “The electric charge allows oxygen to break its bonds with the metals holding it in oxide form, and they are then free to migrate and congregate at a charged electrode. A mixed metal powder is then left behind.”

For further reading about the application of oil and gas expertise and technologies in Moon and Mars projects, see these recent technical papers:

SPE 195803 How Can Drilling Engineers Help Revolutionize Space Transport and Colonize the Solar System: Focusing on Lunar Water-Ice by D. Joshi, A. Eustes, J. Rostami et al., Colorado School of Mines.

SPE 199684 High-Frequency Drilling Data Analysis to Characterize Water-Ice on the Moon by D. Joshi, A. Eustes, J. Rostami, et al., Colorado School of Mines.

SPE 191624 Lunar Drilling—Challenges and Opportunities by S.J. Sawaryn, Consultant; P. Bustin, Wipro Ltd.; M.G. Cain, Electrosciences Ltd., et al.

OTC 30670 Human Systems Integration Relationships Between Deep Space and Deepwater Exploration Challenges by G. Salazar, NASA; M.N. Russi-Vigoya, KBR.

SPE 203285 Production of Methane Rocket Propellant on Mars by T. Al Kaissi and A. Al Shehhi, UAE Space Agency; P.R. Marpu, Khalifa University of Science and Technology, et al.