Drilling on the Moon

What would we drill for on the Moon?
17 December 2019

Interview with 

Mahesh Anand, Open University


An image of Earth from the Lunar surface


There are plans for a joint mission between Europe and Russia to drill and analyse samples on the Moon in search of water, ice and other chemicals. Involved in this mission is Mahesh Anand from the Open University, and he joined Adam Murphy and Chris Smith in the studio to fill them in on the details...

Mahesh - The European space agency is collaborating with the Roscosmos and by 2024, we plan to land at the lunar South pole region, to test first of all, whether there is really water ice near there. If it is there, then how much of it is there? What is its distribution like, and how much of it can be actually extracted in the form of water?

Chris -  Is your mission a "Rover" mission? Will you land something a bit like, we've got Curiosity trundling around on the surface of Mars, or is this a static thing? You will land something in one place and then do all your tests there?

Mahesh - No, this is just a lander mission. So this will simply land at a location and there it has a limited functionality in the sense that it will have about a metre or so or two metres or so within its reach.

Chris - It's an arm, is it?

Mahesh - It would have an arm that can extend and also it will have a drill that will have certain mobility to actually vary itself, then sub-sample the surface.

Chris - So it'll go into the surface, get some samples at varying depths, it knows how far it's gone, how does it then get the chemical composition of the surface? How does it know what it's tasting?

Mahesh -  Right. So it's a combination of two different things. So drill is one piece, that Europe is providing and the other bit is a chemical laboratory called Prosper. Now this laboratory is being currently built at the Open University and the idea is that the drill actually is going to drill at different depths, almost up to a metre depth. And then from time to time it is going to actually bring the drill material to this laboratory, which is then going to cook it up. And then what will get released gets detected by the mass spectrometer, which would be in this instrument.

Chris - So chiefly water. Because the other thing we heard about from Lewis Dartnell just now was other things like rare Earths, like precious metals as well because of the asteroid and another impacters that have hit the moon in the past, and we think that that there may be some surface material there from that source. Can you analyse all of those things?

Mahesh -  So in principle, yes, all of those things could be analysed, but I think we have to first decide on our priority list and as scientists who are actually working on this mission, we all decided that actually finding water is probably going to be the biggest thing first of all, followed by other things that could be measured. And remember this is going to be just at a location and if water could be found then I think there will be more reason to go back to the moon, to other areas and actually do further analysis.

Chris -  And this is not something that the rocks that Apollo 12 and so on brought back with them? We can't get enough information from those samples? You want to go to that location. Is this not a bit like throwing a dart into a dartboard and just ending up in one place and you just have to hope you're lucky and you hit the triple 20, or the bullseye with where you land this thing? Or is it more informed, your landing site decision?

Mahesh - It is actually quite a detailed exercise. So it's not as simple as just blindly landing somewhere. There's a lot of work that is going on where actually colleagues are looking at remote sensing data set at a very high resolution and trying to figure out what could be the best landing spot that actually takes all those boxes. More importantly, can you land safely? Because safety is paramount. You have to land safely. And then secondly, can you actually land safely in an area where actually there is an enhanced signature for the presence of water ice within the first metre off the surface? Because remember you can only drill up to a metre depth or so. So these are all different combinations that are taking place at the moment.

Adam - When you're making a drill that goes onto the moon, what's different from a drill you would have on Earth? Is there anything different about it?

Mahesh - In short, no it's not a huge amount of difference. But what you have to understand is that on Earth you can change your drill, you can change your drill bit if it gets stuck, and you know what sort of strength you are actually drilling through in the rock.

Mahesh -  On the moon, if you do have water ice, then some tests that has been done in the laboratories have shown that even the presence of few percent of water ice could make the whole thing harder than a piece of concrete. So drilling in a water saturated lunar regolith is not going to be as straight forward as we might think.

Chris - Is there a precedent for what you're doing in the sense that, are you just basically aiming to do safely and better what we've already done using existing technology? Or have you had to break new ground (not just lunar surface) in order to physically get this thing onto the moon's surface, by the time you make it happen?

Mahesh - So, I think there are two bits to this question. The first one is that to devise the drill that actually is going to be a flown onto this, is sort of a replica of a drill that is being built for the ExoMars mission. That is going to launch next year. So there's a lot of research that has gone into devising that drill. And secondly, the material on Mars and moon are going to be very, very different. So the expected strength of the material that you are going to drill through are also going to be different. So there's a lot of tests going on on things that we call simulants, which are what the name says, they are trying to simulate the, the geotechnical properties of the material that we are expected to encounter on these surfaces.

Chris - How are you going to power that drill? Because a metre into a very hard material, that's going to take a lot of work. So what's the power source?

Mahesh -   In this case it's all going to be done by solar panels. And that's why it's also time limited.

Chris - Charge 'em up during the day?

Mahesh -  Yeah, that's right. So we don't know whether the mission will survive beyond one lunar night.

Adam -  What if we don't find any water up there? What's the plan if that happens?

Mahesh -   So it's a very good question and actually, and we have been actually thinking about this possibility because you know, it's a landed mission and if you don't find water where you land, what do you do then? So the Prosper laboratory that I mentioned also will carry a small experiment, which is to demonstrate that if you don't find any water, you could still extract oxygen, which is present almost everywhere - because half of the moon is oxygen - and it will be carrying its own hydrogen canister and it is going to actually extract the oxygen from the lunar rocks and react it with the hydrogen that it is carrying to produce water. Now if we can demonstrate that that can be done, then that paves way for a future in situ resource utilization on the moon itself.

Chris -  This is exciting, isn't it? Because the problem with space research, these missions last so long, you've got to stake basically your whole career on this and hope it works, haven't you? Potentially.

Mahesh - I think that's why it is so exciting and it is why it's so exciting for potentially those who are actually trying to make up their mind what to do in future. So if you are one of those young ones who are going through GCSE and actually trying to decide what to do in future, this is for you because what we are talking here is what's going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years and you are going to be the next leaders.


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