It’s no secret that in this decade, NASA and other space agencies will be taking us back to the Moon (to stay, this time!) The key to this plan is developing the necessary infrastructure to support a sustainable program of crewed exploration and research. The commercial space sector also hopes to create lunar tourism and lunar mining, extracting and selling some of the Moon’s vast resources on the open market.
Ah, but there’s a snag! According to an international team of scientists led by the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), there may not be enough resources on the Moon to go around. Without some clear international policies and agreements in place to determine who can claim what and where, the Moon could quickly become overcrowded, overburdened, and stripped of its resources.
When human beings start living in space for extended periods of time they will need to be as self-sufficient as possible. The same holds true for settlements built on the Moon, on Mars, and other bodies in the Solar System. To avoid being entirely dependent on resupply missions from Earth (which is costly and time-consuming) the inhabitants will need to harvest resources locally – aka. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).
This means they’ll have to procure their own sources of water, building materials, and grow their own food. While the ISS has allowed for all kinds of experiments involving hydroponics in space, little has been done to see how soil fares in microgravity (or lower gravity). To address this, Morgan Irons – Chief Science Officer of the Virginia-based startup Deep Space Ecology (DSE) – recently sent her Soil Health in Space experiment to the ISS.
As part of Project Artemis, NASA intends to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024, in what will be the first crewed mission to the lunar since the Apollo Era. By the end of the decade, NASA also hopes to have all the infrastructure in place to create a program for “sustainable lunar exploration,” which will include the Lunar Gateway (a habitat in orbit) and the Artemis Base Camp (a habitat on the surface).
Part of this commitment entails the recovery and use of resources that are harvested locally, including regolith to create building materials and ice to create everything from drinking water to rocket fuel. To this end, NASA has asked its commercial partners to collect samples of lunar soil or rocks as part of a proof-of-concept demonstration of how they will scout and harvest natural resources and conduct commercial operations on the Moon.
When the International Space Station (ISS) runs low on basic supplies – like food, water, and other necessities – they can be resupplied from Earth in a matter of hours. But when astronauts go the Moon for extended periods of time in the coming years, resupply missions will take much longer to get there. The same holds true for Mars, which can take months to get there while also being far more expensive.
It’s little wonder then why NASA and other space agencies are looking to develop methods and technologies that will ensure that their astronauts have a degree of self-sufficiency. According to NASA-supported research conducted by Daniel Tompkins of Grow Mars and Anthony Muscatello (formerly of the NASA Kennedy Space Center), ISRU methods will benefit immensely from some input from nature.
In 2009, NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the first mission to be sent by the US to the Moon in over a decade. Once there, the LRO conducted observations that led to some profound discoveries. For instance, in a series of permanently-shaded craters around the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, the probe confirmed the existence of abundant water ice.
The Moon has abundant oxygen and minerals, things that are indispensable to any space-faring civilization. The problem is they’re locked up together in the regolith. Separating the two will provide a wealth of critical resources, but separating them is a knotty problem.
Back in April, NASA once again put out the call for proposals for the next generation of robotic explorers and missions. As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, this consisted of researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs coming together to submit early studies of new concepts that could one-day help advance NASA’s space exploration goals.
One concept that was selected for Phase III of development was a breakthrough mission and flight system called Mini Bee. This small, robotic mining craft was designed by the Trans Astronautica (TransAstra) Corporation to assist with deep-space missions. It is hoped that by leveraging this flight system architecture, the Mini-bee will enable the full-scale industrialization of space as well as human settlement.
Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts out the call to the general public, hoping to find better or entirely new aerospace architectures, systems, or mission ideas. As part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program has been in operation since 1998, serving as a high-level entry point to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers who want to contribute to human space exploration.
This year, thirteen concepts were chosen for Phase I of the NIAC program, ranging from reprogrammed microorganisms for Mars, a two-dimensional spacecraft that could de-orbit space debris, an analog rover for extreme environments, a robot that turn asteroids into spacecraft, and a next-generation exoplanet hunter. These proposals were awarded $100,000 each for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.
NASA announced the winners of the high stakes science instrument competition to fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover at a briefing held today, Thursday, July 31, at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The 2020 rover’s instruments goals are to search for signs of organic molecules and past life and help pave the way for future human explorers.
Seven carefully-selected payloads were chosen from a total of 58 proposals received in January 2014 from science teams worldwide, which is twice the usual number for instrument competitions and demonstrates the extraordinary interest in Mars by the science community.
The 2020 rover architecture is based on NASA’s hugely successful Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover which safely touched down a one ton mass on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012 using the nail-biting and never before used skycrane rocket assisted descent system.
The seven instruments will conduct unprecedented science and technology investigations on the Red Planet that’s aimed for the first time at simultaneously advancing both NASA’s unmanned robotic exploration searching for extraterrestrial life and plans for human missions to Mars in the 2030’s.
The instruments will have the capability to detect low levels of organic molecules that are essential precursors to life.
A technology demonstration experiment will use Mars natural resources to generate oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide that can be used as rocket fuel or for human explorers. This will save enormous costs by enabling astronauts to ‘live off the land’ rather than having to bring everything needed for survival from Earth.
NASA said that the development cost for the chosen instruments is approximately $130 million out of a total cost of $1.9 Billion.
This overall cost is less than Curiosity’s approximate $2.4 Billion cost since the team is rebuilding the rover and landing architecture – sort of an MSL 2 so to speak – developed for Curiosity and also using several left over MSL flight spares.
The Mars 2020 rover will also have a sample cacher with the ability to store core samples collected by the rover’s drill for later retrieval and return to Earth at an as yet unspecified time.
“The Mars 2020 rover, with these new advanced scientific instruments, including those from our international partners, holds the promise to unlock more mysteries of Mars’ past as revealed in the geological record,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology.”
Here’s a list of the 7 selected science payload proposals. They are in some ways more advanced versions form Curiosity and in other ways completely new:
Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom. The instrument also will determine mineralogy of the Martian surface and assist with rover operations. The principal investigator is James Bell, Arizona State University in Phoenix.
SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. The instrument will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith from a distance. The principal investigator is Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico. This instrument also has a significant contribution from the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales,Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie (CNES/IRAP) France.
Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that will also contain an imager with high resolution to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials. PIXL will provide capabilities that permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before. The principal investigator is Abigail Allwood, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds. SHERLOC will be the first UV Raman spectrometer to fly to the surface of Mars and will provide complementary measurements with other instruments in the payload. The principal investigator is Luther Beegle, JPL.
The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. The principal investigator is Michael Hecht, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape. The principal investigator is Jose Rodriguez-Manfredi, Centro de Astrobiologia, Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial, Spain.
The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface. The principal investigator is Svein-Erik Hamran, Forsvarets Forskning Institute, Norway.
So the instruments are more sophisticated, upgraded hardware versions as well as new instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover’s landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life, according to NASA.
“Today we take another important step on our journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
“While getting to and landing on Mars is hard, Curiosity was an iconic example of how our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way for humans to pioneer Mars and beyond. Mars exploration will be this generation’s legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans’ journey to the Red Planet.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.