NASA’s goal is to land an astronaut on Mars by the late 2030s. But before then, it needs to build a lunar base as a midway point. And to build a lunar base, it needs a landing pad. To build a landing pad, it needs a space architect.
That’s Sam Ximenes, whose San Antonio-based venture Astroport Space Technologies recently won its second small business grant from NASA to continue its joint research with UTSA on how to design robots that can build a landing pad on the moon.
“The technology is here,” Ximenes said. “It’s not Star Trek anymore. It’s not fantasy. This is real.”
Astroport’s first contract with NASA last year helped it develop a furnace that could liquefy moon dust and form it into Lego-like bricks. This latest contract seeks a solution to a related problem: how to feed the furnace.
Astroport, founded in 2020 as a subsidiary of a larger company, is now chasing designs for robots — either autonomous or remote-controlled or somewhere in between — that could scoop the moon dust, which is finely granulated lunar soil or regolith, and get it into the furnace.
Though the resulting bricks could be used for a variety of base-building purposes, the immediate objective is to build a landing pad. It’s a necessity. When a space vessel lands or launches from the lunar surface, it launches the surrounding soil into the air, similar to how a landing helicopter blows grass but with a far more extreme velocity.’
“It’s so energetic that the dust goes into orbit and forms a cloud orbiting the moon,” Ximenes said. “That causes havoc and danger for incoming spacecraft.”
And in addition to the permanent smokescreen it could create, the shower of high-speed moon dust could sandblast any existing equipment on the moon such as tractors and habitats.
UTSA is Astroport’s research partner for the project. Professors Sazzad Bin-Shafique and Ibukun Awolusi are leading the research, to which graduate students also will also contribute.
The joint research on making construction materials out of lunar dust will open up “remarkable opportunities … toward achieving space sustainability,” Awolusi said in a prepared statement.
The University of Adelaide in Australia, which has a center for space research and a lunar simulation lab, will also contribute expertise. An aerospace company in California, Venturi Astrolab, will advise on how to connect the system to a robotic rover.
Ximenes said the recent flurry of activity in space research and exploration stems from breakthroughs made by private companies like Space X that have lowered the cost of orbit-to-orbit flight.
“There’s going to be a space economy, and it’s already in development,” Ximenes said, as companies are attracted to mining prospects. “The lunar surface is the next step toward the ultimate goal to get to Mars.”
Both of Astroport’s NASA contracts, which were classified as Phase 1 Small Business Technology Transfers, were funded at $150,000. Those contracts increase to $800,000 if they are continued to Phase 2, Ximenes said.