The Technology Transfer and Partnerships Office
Extraction of Resources from Regolith
Lunar regolith dug by astronauts during the Apollo 16 mission.
(Image credit: NASA)

Lunar regolith dug by astronauts during the Apollo 16 mission. (Image credit: NASA)

Throughout the solar system, regolith represent a major source of all the chemical elements and compounds we value to support crews and living systems, fabricate parts or build structures on planetary surfaces. From planet to planet, regolith vary in composition and mineralogy based on geologic history and the type of exposure to space.

For example, the Moon has never held an atmosphere and thus received large amounts of unaltered material from space and is constantly exposed to unshielded radiation of all types. With an internal structure that is vastly different than Earth's, the Moon still offers a regolith that bears great similarities to terrestrial minerals. It also contains ions embedded by direct exposure to the solar wind and imported compounds such as water and small hydrocarbons possibly deposited by collisions with comets and asteroids. The abundance of a specific resource and its value for planetary missions are critical factors in the decisions to pursue the development of extracting technologies for that resource.

images show sublimation of ice in the trench

Color images acquired by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander's Surface Stereo Imager on the 21st and 25th days of the mission, or Sols 20 and 24 (June 15 and 19, 2008). These images show sublimation of ice in the trench informally called "Dodo-Goldilocks" over the course of four days. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)

The presence of water detected by remote sensing and in the plume of the impact of LCROSS must be confirmed by an instrumented payload on the lunar surface in the polar regions. In the absence of an atmosphere, the extraction of oxygen constitutes another high priority for life support and oxidizer for propulsion. The separation of oxygen from minerals yields metallic elements among which iron, silicon, aluminum, magnesium and titanium are of high value.

Similar high-priority resources are found on Mars and at asteroids. While oxygen is much more accessible from the Martian atmosphere than its regolith, it is bound as oxide of many metals in the minerals. Such metals are even more valuable for a Martian mission that may require access to raw materials for repairs that would be critical for its survival due to the very long time interval between missions to Mars.

The environment, the distance from Earth and the nature of the regolith dictate the priorities one mission will place on the extraction of resources from regolith. While water and oxygen are of premium value at any destination in space, the extraction of metal alloys, ceramic or glass compounds, pure metals and carbon compounds require decisions on available power on the planetary surface, and additional infrastructure to make use of the extracted material. Meanwhile, the continued development efforts aim at demonstrating and validating the most promising technologies during analog field tests on Earth and during demonstration missions in space.