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NASA: Space Resource Utilization

This report from NASA offers some insight into the ways that technology can link space and terrestrial mining and construction. Review the full presentation here:

Space Resources and Their Uses: The idea of using resources in space to support human

exploration and settlement or for economic development and profit beyond the surface of Earth

has been proposed and discussed for decades. Work on developing a method to extract oxygen

from lunar regolith started even before humans set foot on the Moon for the first time. The use of

space resources, commonly referred to as In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), involves the

processes and operations to harness and utilize resources in space (both natural and discarded) to

create products for subsequent use. Potential space resources include water, solar wind implanted

volatiles (hydrogen, helium, carbon, nitrogen, etc.), vast quantities of metals and minerals in

extraterrestrial soils, atmospheric constituents, unlimited solar energy, regions of permanent light

and darkness, the vacuum and zero-gravity of space itself, trash and waste from human crew

activities, and discarded hardware that has completed its primary purpose. ISRU covers a wide

variety of concepts, technical disciplines, technologies, and processes. When considering all

aspects of ISRU, there are 5 main areas that are relevant to human space exploration and the

commercialization of space: 1. Resource Characterization and Mapping, 2. In Situ Consumables

Production, 3. Civil Engineering and Construction, 4. In Situ Energy Production and Storage, and

5. In Situ Manufacturing.

ISRU & Terrestrial Mining: There are four areas where development and utilization of space

resources is highly synergistic with terrestrial needs: Food/Water Production, Mining,

Construction, and Energy. When considering space resources, especially the areas of mining and

processing of resources into usable commodities, ISRU developers have adopted and modified

terrestrial approaches to come up with the Space Mining Cycle, or ‘Prospect to Product’. For both

space and terrestrial mining, the first step is prospecting; first globally and then locally to find and

characterize (physical, mineral, and volatile) the resources that exist, as well as the terrain and the

geological context in which the resource is found. Once the resource has been sufficiently

characterized and mapped, mining and resource processing can be begin. As with terrestrial

mining, subscale feasibility and pilot operations are performed to verify that the resource can be

extracted, that performance and maintenance goals can be achieved, and that the product meets

quality expectations.

In the last two years, NASA has focused on developing and implementing a sustainable human

space exploration program with the ultimate goal of exploring the surface of Mars with humans.

The plan involves developing technology and capability building blocks critical for sustained

exploration, such as ISRU. The evolvable plan develops and expands human exploration in phases

starting with missions that are reliant on Earth, to performing ever more challenging and longer

duration missions in cis-lunar space and beyond, to eventually being independent from Earth.

As these missions progress, human presence will also evolve from a few days, to weeks and months,

to semi and permanent presence in space. Because the crew may not be present during space

mining operations, or because ISRU products may need to be produced before the crew arrives to

reduce mission risk, reliable communication for remote operations, autonomy, and high reliability

are extremely important for ISRU to be successful incorporated into human mission plans.

ISRU & Terrestrial Mining Challenges: When considering the implementation of space

resource utilization into plans for the human exploration of space, there are three primary

challenges: space resource challenges, ISRU technical challenges, and operation and integration

challenges. Even though NASA has sent robotic probes to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, and

astronauts have returned samples from the Moon, there are still significant challenges associated

with using space resources. What resources exist at the destination of interest, what are the

uncertainties associated with the known resources that could cause problems, and what are the

variations in resources that might be encountered? As in terrestrial mining, robotic and human

prospecting will be required. Since the extraction and processing of resources in space has never

been demonstrated, technical challenges exist that must be overcome. Is it technically feasible to

collect, extract, and process the resource present? Is it possible to operate continuously for long

periods of time with limited involvement from the crew or Earth for control and maintenance?

Finally, to achieve the full benefits of extracting and using space resources, ISRU operations must

be performed in severe environments (radiation, abrasive dust, and low or micro-gravity

conditions), and other systems must be designed to accept products from ISRU operations. This

is particularly challenging for space applications since NASA will be working with space agencies

around the world. Therefore, product quality, common standards, and common interfaces will

need to be defined and implemented. As with terrestrial mining, ISRU must provide a return on

investment with respect to mass, cost, and risk reductions compared to missions that do not include

ISRU. The return on investment will be significantly affected by how much and how often space

resource products are used, and by what missions or exploration activities are enabled with these

products that could not otherwise be achieved.

ISRU & Terrestrial Mining Common Areas of Interest: While space and terrestrial mining

might seem worlds apart, the fact that both have common challenges means that both can have

common interests and solutions. The list below is not meant to be all inclusive but to highlight

some of the most obvious areas of common interest between space and terrestrial mining so that

further discussions can delve deeper and expand the list.

Remote/Autonomous Operations. As easily assessable resources become harder and harder to

find, terrestrial mining has had to venture into more remote and hostile environments (artic,

underwater, deeper). As this occurs, the cost and safety of personnel involvement increases to the

extent that remote and autonomous operations become economical. Because astronaut time is

valuable and limited, remote and autonomous operation of ISRU is required.

Regenerative ‘Green’ Power. All space operations are limited due to two things: propulsion

(transportation) and power availability. As the high cost and particulate concerns associated with

diesel fuel, terrestrial mining will need to incorporate more environmentally friendly and

renewable energy solutions. Both regenerative/hydrocarbon fuel cells and collection and

conversion of carbon dioxide are critical to both the space and mining industries

Dust Mitigation/Severe Environment Operation. As stated under Remote/Autonomous

Operations, terrestrial mining is venturing into more remote and hostile environments. Mining in

space requires the ability to potentially encounter and handle extreme temperatures as well as

temperature swings, the vacuum of space, and severe radiation. Even worse, since space soils, or

regolith, are not exposed to wind and rain weathering conditions on Earth, the dust is extremely

fine, sharp, hard, and abrasive. Lubricants are difficult to incorporate into space hardware that

must operate continuously for long periods of time, so dust mitigation for mining, power systems,

and crew operations is critical.

High Reliability/High Performance. To provide a return on investment for space mining, the

infrastructure required for prospecting, excavation, extraction/processing, product storage, and

power needs to be compared to just brining the product in the first place. Therefore, the more

efficient the end-to-end process, the faster/greater return on investment.

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