Monday, September 13, 2010

Potential lunar ISRU experiments and missions

Scarab concept lunar rover (undergoing analog testing in Hawai'i in 2009), a test-bed for the Lunar Polar Resource Characterization precursor mission concept. Robotic missions designed to determine the precise nature of volatiles within permanently darkened regions on the Moon (such as Cabeus, impact site of LCROSS in 2009) will necessarily need to be robust [NASA].

Gerald B. Sanders
Lunar Surface System Office

Extraction and use of resources on the Moon, known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), can potentially reduce the cost and risk of human lunar exploration while also increasing science achieved. By not having to bring all of the shielding and mission consumables from Earth missions may require less mass to accomplish the same objectives, carry more science equipment, go to more sites of exploration, and/or provide options to recover from failures not possible with delivery of spares and consumables from Earth alone.

The concept of lunar ISRU has been considered and studied for decades, and scientists and engineers were theorizing and even testing concepts for how to extract oxygen from lunar soil even before the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

There are four main areas where ISRU can significantly impact how human missions to the Moon will be performed: mission consumable production, civil engineering and construction, energy production, storage and transfer, and manufacturing and repair. The area that has the greatest impact on mission mass, hardware design and selection, and mission architecture is mission consumable production, in particular, the ability to make propellants, life support consumables, and fuel cell reagents. Mission consumable production allows for refueling and reuse of spacecraft, increasing power production and storage, and increased capabilities and failure tolerance for crew life support. The other three areas allow for decreased mission risk due to radiation and plume damage, alternative power systems, and failure recover capabilities while also enabling infrastructure growth over Earth delivered assets.

While lunar ISRU has significant potential for mass, cost, and risk reduction for human lunar missions, it has never been demonstrated before in space. To demonstrate that ISRU can meet mission needs and to increase confidence in incorporating ISRU capabilities into mission architectures, terrestrial laboratory and analog field testing along with robotic precursor missions are required. A stepwise approach with international collaboration is recommended.

The first step is to understand the resources available through orbital and surface exploration missions. Resources of particular interest are hydrogen, hydroxyl, water, and other polar volatile resources recently measured by Chandrayaan-1, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). The second step is to demonstrate critical aspects of ISRU systems to prove ISRU is feasible under lunar environmental and resource conditions (e.g. sub-scale oxygen extraction from regolith). The third step is to perform integrated missions with ISRU and other connected systems, such as power, consumable storage, surface mobility, and life support at a relevant mission scale to demonstrate ISRU capabilities as well as the critical interfaces with other exploration systems. If possible, the mission should demonstrate the use of ISRU products (e.g. in a rocket engine or fuel cell). This ‘dress rehearsal’ mission would be the final step before full implementation of ISRU into human missions, and may be performed during human lunar exploration activities.

This stepwise approach is the most conservative approach, and may only be possible with international cooperation due to the limited number of robotic missions each nation/space agency can perform within their budget.

View the presentation and slides (pdf), HERE.