NASA has greenlit two deep-space mining concepts for further development. The Phase III awards from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program are worth up to US$2 million over a two-year period and will fund a project to develop an autonomous Moon prospecting rover and a robotic mining system to extract water and other volatiles from asteroids.
With the costs of just getting into low-Earth orbit sitting at around US$10,000 per pound, any persistent manned presence on the Moon or beyond is going to mean exploiting space-based resources. In part, that means lunar and asteroid mining. To help facilitate this, NASA is supporting a range of mission concepts, with two reaching the stage where the developers have been asked to refine their concepts and how they would be implemented.
The first of the two is Skylight, which is an autonomous micro-rover being developed by William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. It's designed to be deployed in squads to quickly seek out a lunar crater, which it then studies using high-resolution cameras to produce 3D models that can help planners back on Earth to determine if there's anything worth a more detailed survey by astronauts or more sophisticated rovers.
In addition, Skylight could be used to look for lunar ice, which would be a great help to NASA's Artemis program, and could find Earthside employment as monitors for mines and quarries.
The second mission is the Mini Bee prototype. Part of the broader Apis mission by Joel Sercel of the TransAstra Corporation, the goal is to build a flight demonstration satellite that will show the practicality of using mirrors to focus sunlight on asteroids to boil off water and other volatiles so they can be collected for use as propellants and other applications.
According to the developers, this could eventually lead to an entire asteroid prospecting and mining system with specialized Bee-craft carrying out different functions, from mining to crew transports.
NASA says that both of these concepts are in the early stages of development and were selected after an extensive review into their innovativeness and technical viability. The next phase will be to develop them to the point where they can be handed over to the government and private companies for actual implementation.
"We are pursuing new technologies across our development portfolio that could help make deep space exploration more Earth-independent by utilizing resources on the Moon and beyond," says Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "These NIAC Phase III selections are a component of that forward-looking research and we hope new insights will help us achieve more firsts in space."
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