NASA needs a gas station on the moon, and it’s using Montana rock to help build it. More or less.
It turns out that ground rock from the Stillwater Mine in Nye, Mont., is a key ingredient in an amalgam that mimics the makeup of the moon’s south pole. This synthetic moon dirt will help NASA as it prepares to establish a permanent base there by 2024.
“The Stillwater deposit sits in the midst of a particularly unusual geologic formation, and that formation has the right mineralogy and the right chemistry that we were looking for,” says Steve Wilson, a scientist at the Denver-based U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “And there are very few places in this country, and fewer in the world, that have that.”
Partnering with NASA, the USGS this summer plans to collect four or five tons of calcium-rich rock, or plagioclase, from the Stillwater Mine, the first batch of the 50–100 tons NASA needs by 2011. The USGS will truck the rock to Boulder, Colo., where a high-temperature plasma melter will cook it and create glass.
NASA started the multibillion-dollar project in 2006. Wilson says the USGS has budgeted $500,000–$750,000 for their part. Stillwater, meanwhile, offers the waste rock free of charge.
The moon is covered in naturally occurring glass, or agglutinate, Wilson explains, “formed when a micrometeorite traveling at about 15,000 mph hits the surface of the moon and all that kinetic energy is transformed into thermal energy, and it melts a small environment around the impact site.”
Wilson says NASA needs Montana’s faux moon agglutinate because when astronauts go to the moon they’re going to have to develop a whole new field of technologies to help them survive. Basically, NASA needs to practice how to live off of the rocks.
NASA wants a moon base at the south pole—that’s within the moon’s lighter-colored highlands—“to serve as a gas station, in literal terms,” Wilson says. “It takes so much energy to get a space craft off the Earth that by the time they get up into space they don’t have any significant propulsion system available to them.”
So if astronauts can refuel, they can propel themselves to far-flung planets, as opposed to relying on those darn slow and inconvenient gravitational forces.