How a Small NASA Mission Might Change the Course of Space Exploration
published during a full moon.
01/12/2017

When explorers roamed the New World, they didn’t set foot on uncharted lands and unload from their ships lumber and food. They didn’t send for armadas back home, asking for fresh supplies to stay well fed and in warm beds. Rather, settlement required the necessities of life to be hewn or harvested, and what they unloaded from ships were tools and seed. It was called the Age of Discovery, but it was as well the age of cultivation, the age of construction, the age of contrivance, and, yes, the age of conquest.

We live today in the New Age of Discovery, with explorers like Alan Stern and Lindy Elkins in the roles of James Cook or Bartolomé, and New Horizons and Psyche are our plucky robotic vessels pressing forth into the unknown. As human spaceflight completes its interim retooling for its own push into the final frontier, the requirements for settlement remain unchanged from centuries gone by. You can’t bring with you everything you will need. Survival in the wilderness means subsistence farming and dogged resourcefulness. But how do you do that on another planet?

NASA’s working on it, and the first critical step is a project called Resource Prospector. If their plan works, humanity might one day look back on Resource Prospector as the mission that launched a thousand ships and forever changed the course of human exploration.

Small NASA Mission

Resource Prospector rover. Credit: NASA Advanced Exploration Systems

IN SITU

“The essence of humanity is to be explorers,” says Jacqueline Quinn, “but today we are bound by what we can carry on our backs—meaning what we can put on our rockets and send up. Until we cease that reliance, we will never break free.” It is obscenely expensive to lift things into space. The workhorse rocket used by NASA is the Atlas 5, which costs more than $10,000 per pound to lift something. The math alone renders impossible the dream of long-duration, large crewed exploration missions, let alone permanent ones.

The solution to this problem, Quinn explains, is a process called in situ resource utilization. ISRU, as it is abbreviated, is the creation of usable commodities from extraterrestrial materials. You don’t fly bricks to the moon. You make them from lunar soil. You don’t fill a lake on Mars with water from Earth. You make it from elements on and in the Martian ground and sky. Need to fuel your spaceship for the ride back to Earth? All you need are carbon and hydrogen and the right machine to make methane. And so on. There’s a sense of daring to ISRU. It is a new kind of space travel. You’re exploring the solar system without taking everything you need. You’re setting stakes on another world with the intention to live off the land.

It makes sense, of course, and it sounds easy, but it’s never actually been done on another world, and is, in fact, very hard. Quinn, who is based from Kennedy Space Center, is the Resource Prospector payload project manager. She has spent the last decade helping to develop ISRU, and Resource Prospector is the outgrowth of those efforts. Its mission is to go to the moon, study the lunar soil, and determine how easily the water within can be accessed. Its heritage traces back to the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission in 2009, which discovered water in the south polar region of the moon in a permanently shadowed crater—that is, a crater that hasn’t seen sunlight in over a billion years due to the moon’s low tilt angle.

RP, as the team calls Resource Prospector with the sort of familiarity that Luke Skywalker has with R2, is a rover about the size of a golf cart. At a glance, its design suggests Pathfinder—that golden body, those strange wheels, that solar panel roof (though RP’s panels are steepled). The resemblance is fleeting, however, and the rovers are otherwise entirely different, as the massive vertical drill jutting from its core makes clear. This isn’t a robot made for passive observation. It’s not a tourist; it’s a miner, and when it lands, it has work to do. Those wheels (four rather than Pathfinder’s six) don’t just steer. They articulate. It can climb hills covered in soft soil. When RP is stuck in loose material, it can twist and lift its wheels and “army man crawl” to firmer ground. It’ll need that kind of mobility, too, because it’s designed to drive for kilometers across austere and uncharted lunarscape and into those permanently shadowed lands, where no human or robot has gone before.

 

ONE METER BELOW

The mission will work like this, according to Jim T. Smith, the lead systems engineer for payload on Resource Prospector. As the rover drives across the lunar surface, an onboard neutron spectrometer will collect data on the soil one to two meters in front of the rover, and one meter below the surface. This data will in turn be correlated with data already collected by previous missions to determine the distribution of hydrogen (including H2O ice) and other elements. (Where RP studies the moon at a “human scale,” orbital data has a much poorer resolution of 60 kilometers per pixel.)

“The first instrument we use is almost like a metal detector on a beach—a neutron spectrometer,” says Smith. “As we traverse the surface it is continually counting epithermal neutrons emanating from the moon. When we see the correct signal and we believe we’ve found a good hydrogen source, the rover is equipped with a drill capable of penetrating one meter down into the surface.” The drill can do two things: It can excavate material to the surface for inspection with a near infrared spectrometer. This will determine if there is water ice present or hydroxyl or whatever. The drill can also capture material at precise depths as far down as one meter and deliver it to individual crucibles, which are then heated by an Oxygen & Volatile Extraction Node (OVEN), which is an oven.

Quinn explains that the oven drives off the gasses, which are analyzed by a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. It will quantify the constituents present. “Remember, we’re in almost perfect vacuum,” she says. “Being able to physically contain water in a mechanical device and get it into a sealed vessel, so those resources don’t sublime is as important as the original detection. The volatiles may be there, but if you can’t get ahold of them and put them in some sort of vessel, then it’s not doing you a whole hell of a lot of good.”

The last step in the process is perhaps the most poetic and will certainly have the greatest resonance with the largest number of people back on Earth. The vapor will be condensed on a cold finger, forming a water droplet, which RP will then image. The picture of a water droplet beamed back to Earth will mark a turning point in human exploration. Scientists will have drilled into another world, pulled up material, and extracted it as something we can use, something we need.

PARADIGM SHIFT

Resource Prospector is a pioneer in the sense that it is an explorer venturing into unknown territory, but also as it relates to the employment of technology. It will be the first NASA robotic mission to drill deeper than seven centimeters into an extraterrestrial body. It will be the first time we’ve driven into a permanently shadowed region on the moon. It will be the first time NASA has operated on a pole of the moon with a very low angle from which to collect sunlight for its panels, and from which to maintain communications back on Earth. It will be the first time humankind has created a usable commodity from raw material on an alien world. And it might prove to be the first mission to really kick off the commercial race to the lunar surface.

”This whole idea of utilizing the moon and its potential local resources to actually enable exploration architectures is the hot topic right now,” says Daniel Andrews, the project manager for Resource Prospector at NASA Ames Research Center. “I can’t tell you how many times I’m approached at conferences by commercial parties who say ‘I hope you guys really do get the answers you want from RP because I need them for a business plan that we’re putting together.’”

Andrews has more than once been approached by entrepreneurs hoping to use lunar soil to make feedstock for 3D printing. “We’re talking concrete building materials,” he says, “including concrete!” Volatile material utilization is also on the agenda of many companies who hope to make water, usable oxygen, rocket fuel, and other things. Andrews foresees a time when companies are dropping ISRU pallets onto the surface of the moon and filling bottles with volatile-derived resources. “These companies would commoditize volatiles making them available to those who wish to buy it, including this space agency and others. This could be the beginning of a whole new paradigm.”

Small NASA Mission

Resource Prospector mission patch. Credit: NASA Advanced Exploration Systems

THE FUTURE

If fifteen years from now an astronaut sets foot on Mars, some might well look back and claim that Pathfinder started it all. It wasn’t the first mission on the ground. There were the Viking landers, of course, and a series of orbiters and flybys. Those missions, however, somehow belonged to antiquity, to a time of black and white televisions and the prospect of atomic annihilation in the Cold War. Pathfinder seemed to come out of nowhere—a mission of peace and wonder that captured the collective American imagination not just for Mars, but for all exploration beyond our little blue marble. It was the mission that allowed NASA to marshal its resources with the support of the people footing the bill. If there is a journey to Mars, Pathfinder was the first step.

“It might have died with Apollo if not for a little robot called RP.”

Thirty years from now, when there is a moon village of scientists and explorers, and a thriving lunar industrial sector actually based on the moon, people might say, “It might have died with Apollo if not for a little robot called RP.” We harnessed the resources on this world to send a four-wheeled miner to another. And when it got there, it, in turn, harnessed resources it found there. It advanced the cycle. And when people saw water—not mysterious slope lineae or promises beneath an ice shell—but the pure stuff that might have flowed from a tap back home, they were ready. Water! That was the thing that made the public decide at last that we can go to other places. That beyond the colossal intellects of scientists and engineers, there’s something else out there to keep us alive—something ethereal and nourishing on a spiritual level: mother nature.


David W. Brown is a freelance writer whose work appears in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Vox. His next book, ONE INCH FROM EARTH, is about scientists who study the outer planets.