Challenges have been a mainstay of space exploration for several years at this point. In the past, they have ranged from making a potential space elevator to designing a solar power system on the Moon. The European Space Agency is continuing that tradition and has recently released a new challenge focusing on lunar resources. Called the Identifying Challenges along the Lunar ISRU Value Chain campaign, this new ESA platform is the next step in the agency’s efforts to develop an entire “value chain” of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies.
This isn’t the first ESA challenge in the field, either. Recently teams competed in the Space Resources Challenge that utilized rovers to prospect for resources on the lunar surface. The challenge winners (FZI Forschungszentrum Informatik of ETH Zurich and Team Glimpse of the University of Zurich) were announced on April 19th, the same day the next challenge was released.
While the first challenge focused on prospecting, that is only the first step in the seven-step value chain that ESA has developed for thinking about space resources. The new challenge focuses on the other six. It is specifically intended to take input from the public about what challenges should be the focus of the next round of challenges similar to the first.
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That is in part because there are so many challenges to conquer. ESA itself released a 120+ page report on the gaps in the ISRU value chain, and more than 50 of those gaps are listed as potential areas to discuss in this new challenge. Ranging from longer-life motors to recycling technologies for disused or broken-down parts, these gaps could be filled by any number of technologies.
Many of those technologies would only be ideas at this point, and ESA is also actively encouraging individuals to submit those ideas. But what incentive do they have? They quickly point out that there is no cash prize for this challenge. However, several potentially interesting prizes don’t necessarily have a monetary value.
The first is the opportunity to see your technology be tested in a real-life ground-based ISRU pilot plant. The pilot plant is a cornerstone of ESA’s Space Resource Strategy. It can be used as a proving ground for technologies that might someday make it onto the lunar surface and extract oxygen and metals from the lunar regolith.
If a team’s prototype performs well enough in a first round of testing, the next step would be to literally go to space. Technologies that make it this far will potentially have an opportunity to fly on board an ESA mission into space to validate their system’s operation further.
A final step for any such technologies that make it past the space testing would be having a technology land on the Moon. However, the challenge statement points out that before any technology could benefit from this step, it would require a significant increase in the resources devoted to the project. However, there is a chance of that happening if the challenge does take off.
Even so, only competitors from within an ESA member state can fully benefit from all the rewards. However, the agency encourages participants from outside to apply as well, pointing out that they will be exposed to excellent networking opportunities in the world of space resources. They also point out that, while this current challenge specifically deals with lunar resources, there are plans in the works for both Martian and Asteroid equivalents, as each would require its own set of technologies to overcome the challenges of those hostile environments.
As of the time of writing, there haven’t been any ideas submitted yet, and if you’re interested in participating in the challenge, you have a little more than a month (June 30th, 2023) to submit your ideas. With luck, this challenge will result in plenty of great ideas for space resource experts to ponder in the near future.
ESA – Wanted: new ideas to live off Moon resources
ESA – Identifying Challenges along the Lunar ISRU Value Chain
UT – 13 Rovers Recently Competed to Scour the (Simulated) Moon to Harvest Resources
UT – The Moon has Resources, but Not Enough to Go Around
A University of Manchester developed regolith extraction demonstrator takes a scoop of regolith simulant on the moon.
Credit – ESA