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

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.”


South Korean TV ‘reunites’ mother with dead daughter in virtual reality show

This undated handout photo provided on February 14, 2020 by South Korea's Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) in Seoul shows a scene of a documentary "I met you" where a mother meets her dead daughter through virtual reality. (AFP)
Updated 18 February 2020

South Korean TV ‘reunites’ mother with dead daughter in virtual reality show

  • The footage began with the girl — who died of leukaemia in 2016 — emerging from behind a pile of wood in a park, as if playing hide-and-seek
  • “I have missed you Na-yeon,” she told the computer-generated six-year-old, her hands moving to stroke her hair

SEOUL: A tearful reunion between a mother and her dead daughter via advanced virtual reality for a South Korean television has become an online hit, triggering fierce debate about voyeurism and exploitation.
The footage began with the girl — who died of leukaemia in 2016 — emerging from behind a pile of wood in a park, as if playing hide-and-seek.
“Mum, where have you been?” she asks. “I’ve missed you a lot. Have you missed me?“
Tears streaming down her face, Jang Ji-sung reached out toward her, wracked with emotion.
“I have missed you Na-yeon,” she told the computer-generated six-year-old, her hands moving to stroke her hair.
But in the real world, Jang was standing in front of a studio green screen, wearing a virtual reality headset and touch-sensitive gloves, her daughter’s ashes in a locket around her neck.
At times the camera cut to Jang’s watching husband and their three surviving children, wiping away tears of their own.
A nine-minute clip of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) documentary “I met you” has been watched more than 13 million times in a week on Youtube.
Many viewers offered Jang their sympathy and support for the concept.
“My mother unexpectedly passed away two years ago and I wish I could meet her through virtual reality,” said one.
But media columnist Park Sang-hyun said the documentary amounted to exploitation of personal pain.
“It’s understandable a grief-stricken mother would wish to meet her late daughter. I would do the same,” he told AFP.
“The problem lies in that the broadcaster has taken advantage of a vulnerable mother who lost a child for sake of the viewer ratings.”
“If the mother had been counselled before the filming,” he added, “I wonder what kind of a psychiatrist would approve this.”

It took eight months of filming and programming to create the virtual Na-yeon, but the makers of the documentary insisted the broadcast was intended to “console the family” rather than promote virtual reality in ultra-wired South Korea.
The technology presented a “new way to keep loved ones in memory,” one of the producers told reporters.
Jang herself — who has her daughter’s name and date of birth tattooed on her arm in memory — hoped the program could “console” others who had lost loved ones.
“Even though it was a very brief... I was really happy in the moment,” she wrote on her blog — which she has since turned private.
During the broadcast the two sat at a table to celebrate Na-yeon’s missing birthdays, singing “happy birthday” together.
Before blowing out the candles, Na-yeon made a birthday wish: “I want my mother to stop crying.”