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.”


US eases restrictions on China’s Huawei to keep networks, phones operating

Updated 21 May 2019
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US eases restrictions on China’s Huawei to keep networks, phones operating

  • The company is still prohibited from buying American parts and components to manufacture new products without license approvals
  • Out of $70 billion Huawei spent buying components in 2018, some $11 billion went to US firms
WASHINGTON: The US government on Monday temporarily eased some trade restrictions imposed last week on China’s Huawei, a move that sought to minimize disruption for the telecom company’s customers around the world.
The US Commerce Department will allow Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to purchase American-made goods in order to maintain existing networks and provide software updates to existing Huawei handsets.
The company is still prohibited from buying American parts and components to manufacture new products without license approvals that likely will be denied.
The US government said it imposed the restrictions because of Huawei’s involvement in activities contrary to national security or foreign policy interests.
The new authorization is intended to give telecommunications operators that rely on Huawei equipment time to make other arrangements, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
“In short, this license will allow operations to continue for existing Huawei mobile phone users and rural broadband networks,” Ross added.
The license, which is in effect until Aug. 19, suggests changes to Huawei’s supply chain may have immediate, far-reaching and unintended consequences for its customers.
“The goal seems to be to prevent Internet, computer and cell phone systems from crashing,” said Washington lawyer Kevin Wolf, a former Commerce Department official. “This is not a capitulation. This is housekeeping.”
Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker, declined to comment.
The Commerce Department said it will evaluate whether to extend the exemptions beyond 90 days.
On Thursday, the US Commerce Department added Huawei and 68 entities to an export blacklist that makes it nearly impossible for the Chinese company to purchase goods made in the United States.
The government tied Huawei’s addition to the “entity list” to a pending case accusing the company of engaging in bank fraud to obtain embargoed US goods and services in Iran and move money out of the country via the international banking system. Huawei has pleaded not guilty.
Reuters reported Friday that the department was considering a temporary easing, citing a government spokeswoman.
The temporary license also allows disclosures of security vulnerabilities and for Huawei to engage in the development of standards for future 5G networks.
Reuters reported Sunday that Alphabet Inc’s Google suspended business with Huawei that requires the transfer of hardware, software and technical services except those publicly available via open source licensing, citing a source familiar with the matter.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new authorization.
Out of $70 billion Huawei spent buying components in 2018, some $11 billion went to US firms including Qualcomm Inc. , Intel Corp. and Micron Technology Inc.
“I think this is a reality check,” said Washington trade lawyer Douglas Jacobson. “It shows how pervasive Huawei goods and technology are around the globe and if the US imposes restrictions, that has impacts.”
Jacobson said the effort to keep existing networks operating appeared aimed at telecom providers in Europe and other countries where Huawei equipment is pervasive.
The move also could assist mobile service providers in thinly populated areas of the United States, such as Wyoming and eastern Oregon, that purchased network equipment from Huawei in recent years.
John Neuffer, the president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents US chipmakers and designers, said in a statement that the association wants the government would ease the restrictions further.
“We hope to work with the administration to broaden the scope of the license,” he said, so that it advances US security goals but does not undermine the industry’s ability to compete globally and remain technology leaders.
A report on Monday on the potential impact of stringent export controls on technologies found that US firms could lose up to $56.3 billion in export sales over five years.
The report, from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, said the missed opportunities threatened as many as 74,000 jobs.
Wolf, the former Commerce official, said the Huawei reprieve was similar to action taken by the department in July to prevent systems from crashing after the US banned China’s ZTE Corp, a smaller Huawei rival, from buying American-made components in April.
The US trade ban on ZTE wreaked havoc at wireless carriers in Europe and South Asia, sources told Reuters at the time.
The ban on ZTE was lifted July 13 after the company struck an agreement with the Commerce Department that included a $1 billion fine plus $400 million in escrow and replacement of its board of directors and senior management. ZTE, which had ceased major operations as a result of the ban, then resumed business.
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and Angela Moon; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman)