Lunar tunnel engineers excited by boring moon colonies

American professor in mining engineering, Jamal Rostami, poses by a concrete tunnel structure within the World Tunnel Congress WTC 2019 on May 7, 2019 in Naples. (AFP / Alberto Pizzoli)
Updated 10 May 2019
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Lunar tunnel engineers excited by boring moon colonies

  • The administration of US President Donald Trump wants NASA to put humans back on the Moon by 2024
  • American United Launch Alliance estimates about 1,000 people living in outer space by 2050

NAPLES, Italy: 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.
“Space is becoming a passion for a lot of people again. There are discussions about going back to the moon, this time to stay,” US-Iranian expert Jamal Rostami told AFP at this year’s World Tunnel Congress in Naples.
The administration of US President Donald Trump wants NASA to put humans back on the Moon by 2024, and the agency is also drawing up plans for a “Gateway” station to serve as a platform for astronauts traveling to and from the lunar surface.
Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are among those feverishly competing for military, civil or commercial launches, with Musk’s SpaceX leading the race on building rockets ready to fly in time.
But the harsh conditions on the surface of the moon mean that, once up there, humans need to be shielded from radiation and freezing temperatures in structures which maintain atmospheric pressure in a vacuum.
They also need protection from meteorite strikes.
“Imagine something the size of my fist as a piece of rock coming at 10-12 kilometers (6-7 miles) per second, it can hit anything and would immediately destroy it,” Rostami said at the meeting in southern Italy.
“So every plan for having a habitat on the moon involves making a trench, creating a structure and covering it with some sort of regolith, which is the soil on the moon.
“Our idea is to actually start underground, using a mechanism we already use on the earth, a tunnel boring machine, to make a continuous opening to create habitats or connect the colonies together,” he added.
Analysis of images of the lunar surface show lava tubes capable of housing large cities underground, said Rostami, director of the Earth Mechanics Institute at the US Colorado School of Mines.
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 kilogram of material from the earth to the moon. Our machines are hundreds of tons of mass, so it’s not feasible to take the machines as they are,” he said.
“We have to convert the design, where all the components are optimized, 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 rock and dirt.
There is also the question of how to power them.
With a four-meter 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.
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 talk 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 even 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 Fahrenheit).”
“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 Masters 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.”


Scientists close in on blood test for Alzheimer’s

In this July 9, 2019 photo, Dr. Jori Fleisher, neurologist, examines Thomas Doyle, 66, at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. (AP)
Updated 16 July 2019
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Scientists close in on blood test for Alzheimer’s

  • One of the experimental blood tests measures abnormal versions of the protein that forms the plaques in the brain that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s

LOS ANGELES: Scientists are closing in on a long-sought goal — a blood test to screen people for possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
On Monday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, half a dozen research groups gave new results on various experimental tests, including one that seems 88% accurate at indicating Alzheimer’s risk.
Doctors are hoping for something to use during routine exams, where most dementia symptoms are evaluated, to gauge who needs more extensive testing. Current tools such as brain scans and spinal fluid tests are too expensive or impractical for regular check-ups.
“We need something quicker and dirtier. It doesn’t have to be perfect” to be useful for screening, said Maria Carrillo, the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer.
Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, called the new results “very promising” and said blood tests soon will be used to choose and monitor people for federally funded studies, though it will take a little longer to establish their value in routine medical care.
“In the past year we’ve seen a dramatic acceleration in progress” on these tests, he said. “This has happened at a pace that is far faster than any of us would have expected.”
It can’t come too soon for patients like Tom Doyle, a 66-year-old former university professor from Chicago who has had two spinal fluid tests since developing memory problems four years ago. First he was told he didn’t have Alzheimer’s, then that he did. He ultimately was diagnosed with different problems — Lewy body dementia with Parkinson’s.
“They probably could have diagnosed me years ago accurately if they had had a blood test,” said Doyle, who represents patients on the Alzheimer’s Association’s board.
About 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form. There is no cure; current medicines just temporarily ease symptoms. Dozens of hoped-for treatments have failed. Doctors think studies may have enrolled people after too much brain damage had occurred and included too many people with problems other than Alzheimer’s.
A blood test — rather than subjective estimates of thinking skills — could get the right people into studies sooner.

One of the experimental blood tests measures abnormal versions of the protein that forms the plaques in the brain that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Last year, Japanese researchers published a study of it and on Monday they gave results from validation testing on 201 people with Alzheimer’s, other types of dementia, mild impairment or no symptoms.
The blood test results closely matched those from the top tests used now — three types of brain scans and a mental assessment exam, said Dr. Akinori Nakamura of the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology in Obu, Japan. The test correctly identified 92% of people who had Alzheimer’s and correctly ruled out 85% who did not have it, for an overall accuracy of 88%.
Shimadzu Corp. has rights to the test and is working to commercialize it, Nakamura said.
Another experimental test looks at neurofilament light, a protein that’s a marker of nerve damage. Abdul Hye of King’s College London gave results of a study comparing blood levels of it in 2,300 people with various neurological conditions — Alzheimer’s, other dementias, Parkinson’s, depression, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease — plus healthy folks for comparison.
Levels were significantly higher in eight conditions, and only 2% of healthy folks were above a threshold they set for raising concern. The test doesn’t reveal which disorder someone has, but it may help rule one out when symptoms may be psychological or due to other problems.
Later at the conference, Dr. Randall Bateman of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will give new results on a blood test he helped develop that the university has patented and licensed to C2N Diagnostics, a company he co-founded. Like the Japanese test, it measures the abnormal Alzheimer protein, and the new results will show how well the test reflects what brain scans show on nearly 500 people.
“Everyone’s finding the same thing ... the results are remarkably similar across countries, across techniques,” said Bateman, whose work is supported by the US government and the Alzheimer’s Association. He estimates a screening test could be as close as three years away.
What good will that do without a cure?
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last year found that most Americans would want to know if they carried a gene tied to a disease even if it was incurable.
“What people want most of all is a diagnosis” if they’re having symptoms, said Jonathan Schott of University College London. “What we don’t like is not knowing what’s going on.”