Above: A molten pool of cast basalt created at the Colorado School of Mines. Credit: Kyla Edison. 

A former PISCES intern and technician is forging new research to help develop infrastructure beyond Earth. Kyla Edison, a Kauai native and University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo alumnus, is studying to earn her doctorate from the Colorado School of Mines. Her focus? Finding effective techniques to make durable construction materials out of lunar regolith.

Since bidding farewell to PISCES in 2020, Kyla has shifted her focus from sintering—a process where regolith particles are fused together by heat—to casting, or melting, using various lunar regolith simulants. The resulting materials are intended for building infrastructure like launchpads, roads, piping, and tools on the lunar surface.

Former PISCES intern and technician Kyla Edison.

Former PISCES intern and technician Kyla Edison.

Last year, PISCES made a similar pivot in its research approach, focusing on casting methods using Hawaiian basalt. Naturally, Kyla’s knowledge of the field aligned with PISCES’ casting research project—a six-month NASA SBIR-funded experiment in partnership with Cislune—and she was hired as a consultant. Kyla helped guide the casting process and conduct strength testing on the resulting materials.

“We conducted mechanical strength testing on the basalt samples, looking at compressive and flexural strength,” Kyla said. “Compressive strength refers to the ability of a material to withstand loads before failing, whereas flexural strength is the material’s ability to resist deformation under a heavy load.”

Kyla said the findings showed the materials were inferior in strength to the sintered samples PISCES had previously developed. However, any first-time experiment is a learning opportunity to develop improvements in the next research phase.

“We learned that we need to refine the casting process,” Kyla explained. This includes the melting duration, pouring temperature, and annealing—a process of slow-cooling and crystallization to prevent major stresses and defects. Examining the raw basalt and finding a better balance of chemical, mineral and glass content may also help improve the strength of future samples.

“[Testing] was not as simple as I thought it would be. There are many factors to consider in testing such as industry standards, strain rates, and the hardware or software of the hydraulic press. Operating the machinery takes a lot of time and training,” she said.

Flexural strength testing on a cast basalt sample. Credit: Kyla Edison

Kyla’s work goes well beyond the casting process. Her thesis explores the entire process of creating infrastructure materials for the Moon—from beneficiation, mining, and processing, to manufacturing a final product.

“After I finish producing and testing casting materials using lunar regolith, I’ll be comparing them to the sintered material I developed at PISCES,” Kyla said. “Then I can recommend ideal uses for each material manufacturing technique. Hopefully, by the end of my time in the Colorado School of Mines PhD program, I will have matured the regolith casting process so that it can be elevated for space testing.”

Kyla is also researching how space debris can be used as a resource. Orbiting fragments of aluminum left behind by satellites, rockets, and spacecraft have a much lower melting point than lunar regolith and could potentially serve as a binding agent to produce semi-durable materials.

NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon, as well as recent lunar landings by China, India, and the U.S. are clear indicators of a new chapter in lunar exploration. Human and robotic missions to the Moon will become increasingly frequent in the coming years. Kyla’s research is supporting essential techniques for creating the infrastructure that will be crucial for the long-term success of lunar exploration.