Spotlight on PhD student Timon Schild: eyes on the moon and feet on the ground

Published on 02/05/2023

What drove you to write a thesis on space?

Before I started my PhD, my career path hadn't quite led me towards either research or the space sector – I actually studied mechanical engineering at INSA in Lyon. But I was able to do a double degree there, in conjunction with the Trinity College Dublin. Over the course of two years spent there, I had the opportunity to write my master's dissertation on the topic of space. I focused on the development of an additional component of a small satellite (Cubesat) called EIRSAT-1.

After this experience, I joined the European Space Agency as part of their graduate programme. I was based for two years in Cologne, at the European Astronaut Centre, where I worked on the use of space resources, a field I was very much interested in. In terms of research, this is a relatively new topic, so there is still a lot to discover. It was following this stint that I decided to undertake a PhD so that I could continue my research in this field.

You started your thesis in June last year. Can you tell us more about it?

For future missions on the moon, especially those of long duration, space agencies are aiming to establish a lunar base. In other words, some sort of a laboratory on the moon, just as we have the International Space Station orbiting the earth today. To make this possible, though, we will have to be able to use the resources in situ or locally available to support our astronauts and the infrastructure.

As for my thesis, what I'm interested in is a resource that can be found all over the moon, lunar regolith. My aim is to enable us to extract and use some of the materials that make up this lunar dust via a process involving the electrolysis of molten salt. This technique, which uses the regolith to provide oxygen, also generates metals as a by-product. And this is the precise focus of my work: creating high-performance alloys that could be used for 3D metal printing on the moon!

How have you found the first year of your thesis?

I'm starting to organize myself and manage my time better! The risk with studying this topic is that if I wanted to, I could spend all my time experimenting. But that would also mean that I wouldn't be doing any analysis, literary research or data processing, and so my experiments wouldn't be very useful.

One of the first things I did was to go to the Netherlands to learn how to use an ESA (European Space Agency) prototype capable of carrying out this electrolysis process on molten salts, because a similar system is going to be installed at ESRIC next year. It's an exciting project, and I am lucky to be able to benefit from the knowledge and advice of the experts on site.

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