LUNAR Tunnel Engineers excited by Boring Moon Colonies.

As space agencies prepare to return humans to the Moon, top engineers are racing to design a tunnel boring machine capable of digging underground colonies for the first lunar inhabitants.

But getting something as vast as a tunnel boring machine up there will be no easy task.

''Weight is an issue. It's pretty expensive to take a kilogramme of material from the earth to the Moon. Our machines are hundreds of tonnes of mass, so it's not feasible to take the machine as they are,'' he said.

''We have to convert the design, where all the components are optimised, weigh much less, and perform better.''

The machines also have to become fully automated and repairs reduced to a minimum, a particular challenge when dealing with tools that see a lot of wear and tear as they eat through the rock and dirt.

There is also a question of how to power them.

With a four-metre diameter machine needing some 2,000  kilowatts of energy, experts are debating whether it is possible to use small nuclear power plants to fuel a lunar version, he said.

Frozen treasure
There may be  1,000  people living in outer space by 2050 - either in orbit or on the Moon   -according to the American United Launch Alliance,  which estimates this initial space exploration will cost 2.7 trillion dollars.

Despite some talks of the first space residents using mining tools like Lunar tunnel boring machines [LTBM]  to dig for precious minerals, Rostami said their priorities would lie in extracting something more precious.

 ''We're not talking about Gold. The first target is water. We know there is trapped water at the lunar poles, where the temperature is as low as  -190 degrees  Celsius [-310 Fahreinheit ]''

One of the ideas being discussed is of heating the part in permanent shadow, evaporating the water and capturing it,'' said  Rostami, who has launched the world's first Master Degree and PhD in Space Resource Engineering in Colorado.

''Another idea is to mine it, and take it to a facility and let it thaw. The material extracted along with the water can then be used to 3D print buildings in the colonies,'' he said.

One thing is sure : the future LTBM will undergo rigorous pilot testing on Earth first ''because once it's deployed, that's that it'll be very difficult  to make any drastic changes''. [Agencies]


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