Materials are a crucial but underrated part of any space exploration program. Without new materials and manufacturing methods, everyday things like a Falcon 9 rocket or the Mars rovers would never have been possible today. As humanity expands into the solar system, it will have to make greater use of the materials found there – a process commonly referred to as In Situ Resource Use (ISRU). Now NASA’s Advanced Concepts team has taken a step in support of this process by presenting a suggestion from Dr. Sarbajit Banerjee, a chemist at Texas A&M. The proposal suggests using lunar regolith to build a stable landing pad for future lunar missions.
The proposal, titled Regolith Adaptive Modification Systems (RAMs) to support early alien planetary landings (and operations), focuses on providing early stage infrastructure that would be useful before larger infrastructures such as sintering or geopolymerization plants can be set up.
UT video over ISRU.
Alternatively, RAMs use a novel anchoring technique that revolves around “precursors” and can weld anchor points on the surface to the regolith underneath. Other precursors can be introduced directly into the regolith itself to directly stabilize certain regions.
The precursors consist of a combination of nanothermites and organosilanes. When heated, they mix with the surrounding regolith to create much more stable structures. Interestingly, the source of much of the energy needed to create the bonds that stabilize the material is actually drawn from the material itself.
Video of a nanothermite reaction.
Photo credit: University of Missouri Engineering YouTube Channel
There are other advantages to this system, including its ability to join dissimilar materials. In this way, flexible landing pads that are flown to the surface could be anchored directly to the regolith with minimal effort to ensure they don’t just blow away when hit by a booster motor for the first time.
There are still many hurdles to overcome before this system is set up on the moon. It is one of 16 selected Phase 1 members of the NIAC (NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts) scholarship who seeks to further develop advanced mission concepts ranging from a “pony express” for the solar system to autonomous deep drilling rigs. RAMs themselves have a pedigree in a previous NIAC program that focused on developing the flexible platforms themselves, not the technique of anchoring them to the ground.
Artist’s impression of a previous NIAC project from the University of Southern California to 3D print a landing pad.
Photo credit: NASA / University of Southern California
While the idea behind the RAM concept is still in its early stages, it could have great potential implications for the early stages of human exploration, not just on the moon but other bodies in the solar system as well. As NIAC continues to support these efforts, one day they may see the light of day in another world.
NASA – Regolith Adaptive Modification Systems (RAMs) to support early alien planet landings (and operations)
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Graphic description of the RAMs project.
Photo credit: Sarbajit Banerjee