How the Applied Physics Laboratory is tackling Artemis moon exploration

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul2,2024

The moon is far from being a “been there, done that” world, even taking into account the six Apollo landings that allowed a dozen different astronauts to walk the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972.

Today, a combination of scientific, economic, and security interests drives a renewed focus on lunar missions, with the United States and China leading rival efforts to inhabit the moon.

“This decade’s approach by NASA is very different than Apollo,” said Robert Braun, head of the Space Exploration Sector at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL is a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University.

The APL is home to a Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium, funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). That consortium is tackling an array of issues for STMD’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, each important to solve before humanity can spend an extended stay on the moon. 

Focus groups

“We’re pulling together and organizing a community,” Braun told SpaceNews, explaining that over 500 organizations in the United States alone are taking part in consortium-convened gatherings focused on future lunar operations, be they space startup groups to larger businesses or nonprofit institutions, along with several universities. 

The APL has been carrying out focus group meetings on all challenges, Braun said, from appraising surface power hardware on the moon to the on-the-spot utilization of t lunar resources to churn out oxygen and other products, like rocket propellant. 

Additionally, there are deep dives into other challenges, such as excavation and construction, curbing dust problems and dealing with the moon’s extreme and brutal environment. Rounding out the focus group topic list is determining how human and robotic systems will be employed to access hard-to-reach lunar sites, such as subsurface caves and lava tubes. 

Made on the moon

“There’s an increasing energy and acceleration towards including the moon in our space activities,” Braun said. “If you look at what’s happening around the world, we’re not the only ones doing this.”

Braun exclaimed that the consortium is formulating recommendations for what’s possible to do on the moon and when. “And there are experiments that need to be done first,” he said. “It’s risk reduction, basically. Doing a proof-of-concept before you send any large-scale system to the moon … I think that’s prudent.”

“Every year, we’re getting closer to reality,” said NASA’s Jerry Sanders, head of the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) system capability leadership team for STMD. “What I see today are all the pieces around ISRU being developed. So that infrastructure is starting to exist,” he told SpaceNews.

Following over three years of Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium engagement, NASA unveiled last year a Lunar Infrastructure Foundational Technologies (LIFT-1) demonstration action plan. LIFT-1’s central goal is to showcase the feasibility of extracting oxygen from lunar regolith, to further the objective of churning out, capturing and storing oxygen on the lunar surface.

NASA plans to install this ISRU demo at the lunar south pole in late 2027. NASA’s anticipated funding for the LIFT-1 initiative is roughly $200 million to $250 million, including launch through landing and surface operations.

Wanted: a MOXIE moment

LIFT-1 is specifically identified within NASA’s 2025 budget request now before Congress.

NASA hosted a LIFT-1 virtual industry forum in November and was open for responses through mid-December, with the intent of putting out a request for proposals by this summer, Sanders said.

Sanders likens LIFT-1 to the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE. That apparatus was hauled to the Red Planet on NASA’s Perseverance rover, now wheeling about in Jezero Crater.

MOXIE was an exploration technology demonstration that produced oxygen from the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars, a key step toward establishing any sustained human presence on that planet.

“We kind of need that MOXIE moment for the moon,” Sanders said.

Up the TRL ladder

APL’s Braun flags the LIFT-1 mission and any following LIFT concepts as a way to kickstart the use of advanced technology on the moon, moving hardware up the Technology Readiness Level ladder into reliable, long-lasting operations “to have the biggest bang for the buck,” he said.

Getting back to the moon in a sustainable way means building up a base camp “that eventually becomes a village, if you will,” Braun said. “And that requires infrastructure, with various robotic elements that are supporting the human.”

These systems are going to have to operate reliably in the lunar environment. “I think the timing demands that we all get real. There’s an urgency,” Braun said. “I’ll be the first to admit that we haven’t moved, in my view, fast enough in terms of all the objectives, the scientific, economic, security and global leadership reasons, in getting back to the moon. But we are where we are.”

Economic ecosystem

Braun foresees the ability to spur a commercial, cis-lunar economy – indeed, an economic “ecosystem” for profitable ventures — in the future. There is speculation about mining helium-3 for fusion reactors and other applications, or even extracting rare earth elements on the moon — all very possible but farther off in the future, he added.

Building a cis-lunar economy will take decades, and this isn’t something that’s going to occur next year by any means, Braun stressed. 

“After communications and internet, I think the next market is propellant,” Braun said. “I think a gas station at the moon could be a viable operation for commercial spacecraft.”

Wes Fuhrman, APL’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative Lead, said that these and other ambitious plans to return to and stay on the moon will require aggressive leveraging of the U.S. and its partners’ technology base. 

“Staying on the same page is critical for that, and the consortium is a place for anyone to hear and be heard, and to find ways we can create our shared lunar future,” said Fuhrman.

What is being fostered is a diverse and informed community, Fuhrman concluded, with a wide-range of knowhow, eager to develop the requisite lunar technologies. 

Fuhrman said that a NASA STMD “Shortfall Prioritization” document is forthcoming. “That will allow us to see the problem-space more clearly so that the community can deliver the right infrastructure that will evolve to be the backbone of enduring lunar presence,” he said.

This article first appeared in the July 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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