CAD/BIM Tips & Tricks
Mining the Moon: An Out-of-This-World Challenge for CAD/BIM Designers
20 March 2023
What would you do if a client requested a design for a pipeline to transport oxygen being extracted on the Moon? Pretty off the wall, right? Except, it actually happened. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program has requested a feasibility study for a pipeline on the Moon. Imagine being the CAD or BIM designer when this project hits your desk. We can well imagine thinking, “Holy crap! This is literally outta this world!” And you’d be right.
What would you do if a client requested a design for a pipeline on the Moon?
The Man on the Moon Must Breathe
A permanent human presence on the Moon — the ultimate goal of NASA’s Artemis program — would require many things, principal among them oxygen for said humans to breathe. Since the constant transportation of large quantities of oxygen from Earth to the Moon is both challenging and expensive, we ideally need to be able to extract and bottle oxygen on the Moon itself.
Oxygen extraction technologies are planned to be demonstrated on a large scale on the Moon as early as 2024 and could provide direct support to the astronauts of the Artemis lunar colonization program as early as 2026. But even if oxygen production on the moon is successful, transporting it presents another challenge. The process of transporting bottled oxygen on rovers or other craft on a planet with no atmosphere and low gravity could be more energy-intensive than the extraction process itself, again making it too expensive to be viable or sustainable. Yet locally sourced oxygen is a must if NASA’s Artemis program is to have a chance of succeeding.
The solution? A lunar pipeline. And a mine on the moon.
Pipeline on the Moon
A nine-month feasibility study is being conducted for the Lunar South Pole Oxygen Pipeline (LSPoP) as Texas-based Lunar Resources, Inc. — a company that focuses on the large-scale industrialization of space — teams up with Scotland-based Wood, a premier consulting and engineering firm. The NIAC program is funding the study with a view to building the pipeline to transport gaseous oxygen from an oxygen extraction site at the Moon’s south pole to a proposed future lunar base.
But here’s the real kicker. Much as transporting oxygen to the Moon is too expensive to be viable, so too is transporting the material for a pipeline. The solution? Manufacture the piping on the Moon with locally sourced materials!
To support a lunar colony, we need to be able to extract and bottle oxygen on the Moon itself.
The current plan is to extract metals via a process known as MRE or molten regolith electrolysis. Lunar regolith is basically the sand-like debris and loose rock we see on the surface of the Moon. During the MRE process, electric current is essentially used to turn the regolith into liquid metal, with oxygen as a by-product. Full-scale tests of the MRE system on Earth have produced high-purity iron, aluminum and silicon. The technology that Lunar Resources, Inc. brings to the table is its manufacturing process that can fabricate vertical and horizontal structures from lunar regolith without the need for additional binding material.
Across the Atlantic, in Aberdeen, Scotland, the team at Wood will undertake an end-to-end system-level design study of the Lunar South Pole Oxygen Pipeline. Having designed and managed projects totaling more than 600,000 kilometers (372,822 miles) of pipeline — often in extreme conditions — the Wood team has a proven history of tackling some of the toughest pipeline industry challenges, and they’ll no doubt be drawing on every ounce of experience and expertise to design a world first: a lunar pipeline constructed of … well, what would you call it? Moon pipe?
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The pipeline will extend approximately 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) to transport oxygen gas from the production source to an oxygen storage/liquification plant near the proposed lunar base.
The pipe itself will be built in modular segments from locally sourced aluminum, which is prevalent at the South Pole. This lunar aluminum is extractable in high purity with the proposed MRE process, can be directly extruded into pipe shapes and can be oxidized to passivate. (Passivation refers to the process of protecting reactive metals with a thin, inert non-reactive coating.) Other on-site metals which will also be analyzed for consideration include iron and magnesium, with passivation of the interior of the pipeline being achieved by coating it with a layer of … lunar glass. Moon pipe and lunar glass? Clearly, the world is changing — fast.
No matter how you look at it, this must surely be one of the most significant engineering undertakings of the year. We’re not talking about setbacks in acquiring raw materials to build a bridge or a dam, the difficulties in obtaining technically qualified and experienced personnel, or even the frustration of dealing with permit departments or other administrative issues.
We’re talking about mining raw materials in — euphemistically — an unfamiliar environment, manufacturing the required pipe in a process like no other, and figuring out a method for laying miles of pipeline that’s never been done quite like this before. And we’re talking about doing all of it on the freaking Moon.
This is one inspirational project worth checking on from time to time. No doubt, there’ll be lots to learn and plenty of opportunities for enthusiastically cheering them on.
Tools to Boost CAD & BIM Productivity
You may not be designing or building anything destined for the Moon, but as a MicroStation®, Revit®or AutoCAD®user, did you know that there are tools to boost your productivity (and your mood) into the stratosphere?
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MicroStation tools are here. Revit help is here and AutoCAD options are here. Alternatively, call 727-442-7774 to talk to a knowledgeable Service Consultant about your specific situation or to get any questions answered.
Our wish for the pipeline project — and the lightening of your workload — is adequately summed up in the words of Buzz Lightyear: “To infinity and beyond!”