Twenty years ago, the Lunar Prospector remote sensing satellite provided evidence of relatively large hydrogen concentrations at the lunar poles and in particular concentrated in permanently shadowed craters. The scientific hypothesis is that the hydrogen is in the form of cryo-trapped water just under the surface of the soil. If true this would mean that an average of about 2% water ice is mixed with the lunar soil existing in the form of ice at cryogenic temperatures. For 5 years we have been investigating the use of microwaves for the processing of lunar soil. One of the early uses could be to use microwave energy to extract volatiles and in particular water from the lunar permafrost. Prototype experiments have shown that microwave energy at 2.45 GHz, as in consumer microwave ovens, will couple with and heat cryogenically cooled lunar soil permafrost simulant, resulting in the rapid sublimation of water vapor into the vacuum chamber. The water vapor has been collected on a cryogenic cold trap with high efficiency. The primary advantage of microwave processing is that the volatiles can be extracted in situ. Excavation would not be required. Microwave frequency dielectric property measurements are being made of different lunar soil simulants and plans are to measure Apollo lunar soil at different frequencies and over a range of temperatures. The materials properties are being used to evaluate the heating of lunar soil and develop COMSOL models that can be used to evaluate different microwave extraction scenarios. With COMSOL the heating from cryogenic temperatures can be calculated and COMSOL will permit temperature dependent materials properties to be used during the heating process. Calculations at different microwave frequencies will allow the evaluation of the type of hardware that would be needed to most efficiently extract the water and other volatiles.
In-Situ Resource Utilization will be necessary for sustained exploration of space. Volatiles are present in planetary soils, but water by far has the most potential for effective utilization. The presence of water at the lunar poles, Mars, and possibly on Phobos opens the possibility of producing LOX for propellant. Water is also a useful radiation shielding material , and valuable to replenish expendables (water and oxygen) required for habitation in space. Because of the strong function of water vapor pressure with temperature, heating soil effectively liberates water vapor by sublimation. Microwave energy will penetrate soil and heat from within much more efficiently than heating from the surface with radiant heat. This is especially true under vacuum conditions since the heat transfer rate is very low. The depth of microwave penetration is a strong function of the microwave frequency and to a lesser extent on soil dielectric properties. Methods for complex electric permittivity and magnetic permeability measurement are being developed and used for measurements of lunar soil simulants. A new method for delivery of microwaves deep into a planetary surface is being prototyped with laboratory experiments and modeled with COMSOL MultiPhysics. We are planning to set up a planetary testbed in a large vacuum chamber in the coming year. Recent results are discussed.