The Heavens on Earth
Man-made moon dirt, or regolith, has been created by the USGS to help NASA prepare for upcoming moon explorations. USGS scientist Steve Wilson talks about this ‘mission critical’ project.
Images are available in the Details/Transcript section as well as on the USGS Multimedia Gallery at: http://gallery.usgs.gov/collections/Astrogeology
Marisa Lubeck: Welcome and thanks for tuning in to this episode of CoreCast. I’m Marisa Lubeck. In an unearthly series of events, the US Geological Survey has created man-made moon dirt or regolith to help NASA prepare for upcoming moon explorations. Four tons of the simulant is expected to be made by this summer of 2009 and turned over to the scientific community involved in lunar exploration.
I’m here with USGS Scientist Steve Wilson to talk about the creation process. Welcome Steve.
Steve Wilson: Welcome.
Marisa Lubeck: Why is this mission important? Why does NASA need this simulant?
Steve Wilson: NASA has plans right now to establish a permanent moon base on the moon by the year 2024. To do that, they’re going to need to develop a whole new set of technologies to help them support the activities on the moon - creation of water, air, and various and the extraction procedures. To do that they’re going to need simulant materials that help them develop this type of technology.
Marisa Lubeck: Why has NASA enlisted the help of the USGS for this mission?
Steve Wilson: It turns out that the USGS has been involved in making geochemical reference materials for over 60 years. And in many ways, reference materials are much like a simulant, we have to identify the source that it comes from and in this country no one is better suited to do that than the United States Geological Survey. And it also turns out that we have a number of scientists still with us that were involved in the Apollo missions back when we they were flying for NASA.
Marisa Lubeck: Are there any particular challenges associated with this job?
Steve Wilson: Actually, there are quite a few. A scale that the NASA is looking at is much different than what we normally do here at the USGS. The long term plan will be for a need of approximately a hundred tons of material which is quite a sizable amount. On top of that, we need to find sources here on earth that have the proper geology and mineralogy like that found on the moon. Fortunately for us, there is such a location that exists up in Montana near the Stillwater Mining company in Nye, Montana.
Perhaps our biggest challenge was to develop a new type of material for the simulant. It turns out that on the moon, there’s a very significant amount of glass that exists naturally. Some of it came from volcanic activities, but by far the biggest portion came from micrometeorites impacting the surface of the moon and beginning to partially melt that lunar crust. That’s what they call agglutinate. At the time we started this, we didn’t have a technology that could make the agglutinate. Because we have access to a plasma melter up at a facility in Boulder, Colorado, we were able to work with Zybek Advanced Products to develop a new technology to produce the agglutinate.
Marisa Lubeck: Can you briefly describe the process of making this simulant?
Steve Wilson: Sure. What we do is we’ll go ahead and identify the proper location up at the Stillwater Mining site. We brought down approximately 15 tons of rock material. We will crush it up and blend it up and get the right mixture there and then we’ll take some of that material, take it up to Boulder at the plasma melter and Zybek Advanced Products will make for us some of the regular high-quality glass and also some of the lower quality agglutinate glass. And when all these parts are put together, we combined all the rocks and all the glass and all the minerals, blend them and then split them into individual containers and that’s the simulant that NASA needs.
Marisa Lubeck: How much regolith are you planning to produce and by when, you said a hundred tons eventually?
Steve Wilson: Right now, a hundred tons eventually. But right now we figured that our initial goal is to look at how we scale things up. We’ve made several prototype materials for NASA in the past. Each one of them about 600 to 800 pounds, but we need to figure out what are the obstacles we’re going to run into when we want to make a hundred tons. So we’re going to take a small step and look at making four to five tons this summer.
Marisa Lubeck: This summer 2009.
Steve Wilson: Yes.
Marisa Lubeck: Where is all that regolith going to go?
Steve Wilson: That’s a good question. Right now, we know almost every NASA center has some role in looking at the lunar exploration. So, we figured most of that material will end up in NASA’s hands, but our long term goal is to make this material available to any scientific organization in the world that’s involves in lunar exploration.
Marisa Lubeck: Artificial regolith has been made before, I understand. How is this simulant different from past simulants that have been made?
Steve Wilson: In the past, NASA’s focus was to land on the maria region of the moon. But that has since changed and they’ve relocated the potential moon base at one of the poles, most likely the South Pole. Well, that’s in one of this called highland region of the moon where the geology is much different than the maria region. So, our material we’re going to make is going to be more in tune with what we find in the highlands region of the moon.
Marisa Lubeck: And that involves the Zybek melting process?
Steve Wilson: Yes, certainly it does. Yes.
Marisa Lubeck: Great. Steve, thanks so much for speaking with us today about this exciting project.
Steve Wilson: My pleasure.
Marisa Lubeck: This podcast is a product of the US Geological Survey Department of the Interior. I am Marissa Lubeck thanks for tuning in.