The Space Resource Newsletter - September 2019

Graphic illustration of what the interior of a deep space habitat may look like. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University.

Graphic illustration of what the interior of a deep space habitat may look like. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University.

Welcome to The Space Resources monthly newsletter for September 2019. With the first concrete pour occurring in space, talks of how sustainably feed one million people on Mars, and SpaceX’s Starship taking shape, the field of space resources is making great progress for tomorrow. We welcome all story ideas, so please contact us or reply to this email with any ideas. If you are not already subscribed to this newsletter, please consider subscribing here.


Asteroids

Another interstellar object detected. Extrasolar comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) was identified on August 30 by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov in Crimea. It will make its closest approach to the sun on December 7, 2019, at a distance of less than 2 AU. A  coma and tail have already formed around the comet, suggesting surface ices are sublimating away from it. Studying interstellar objects provides a key opportunity to understand what deep space comets contain and how they are structured. Link.

NEOCam to be revived. In a move that is great for planetary protection and near-Earth object (NEO) detection, NASA is reviving work to launch an infrared telescope focused on identifying NEOs. Originally the NEOCam project was within the NASA science portfolio, however, it struggled to receive funds due to limited pure scientific returns. NASA is now putting it within its planetary protection portfolio, providing it far greater chance at receiving funds. Link.

10 m boulder bouncing along comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Even though the Rosetta mission completed its visit to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in September 2016, scientists are using its archived data to study its dynamic surface environment. Tracks along the surface show the path a 10 m wide, 230 ton boulder took along the surface after a fall off a cliff. Additionally, Rosetta captured the collapse of a 70 m wide section from a cliff. Studying these dynamic events enables researchers to build more accurate models for asteroids, helping us prepare for future in-situ asteroid missions. Link.

Crawling around asteroids with soft robots. Jay McMahon recently discussed his NIAC Phase II work on AoES (Area-of-Effect Soft-bots) that are capable of dismantling rubble piles on asteroids using soft robotic flexible petals with electroadhesion. The robot crawls across and holds onto the surface using these petals. Each robot also has a central material extraction digger that can remove material and propel it into the asteroid’s orbit for collection by an orbiting spacecraft. Link.

Affordable sample return missions? As part of his Phase II study, Michael VanWoerkom is trying to solve the problem of sample return missions needing exponentially more propellant as they need to both travel to a remote object and return to Earth. The CubeSat sized system has about 90% less mass than current systems. Systems like this will enable more frequent and affordable sample return missions. Link.


Cislunar

SpaceX Starship takes shape. Elon Musk presented the current Starship design on September 28th in Boca Chica, TX. Once in operation, Starship will enable high volume low cost launch capability. The Starship upper stage will be capable of ship to ship refueling, enabling journeys anywhere in the Solar System. Starship’s landing capability will provide the ability to deliver large ISRU systems. Equally as important, Starship will be a customer for propellant produced in-space and on the surface of other planets and moons. Demand for in-space propellant will drive ISRU deployment. Link.

NASA Tipping Point Awards to 14 companies. The technologies being developed through these awards focuses on NASA’s Moon to Mars goal. Some areas include cryogenic propellant production and management, sustainable energy generation, storage and distribution, propulsion systems, autonomous operations, rover mobility, and advanced avionics. Link.


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Moon

Feeding one million people on Mars. Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt explored the food requirements to sustain a permanent settlement on Mars. By modeling the calorie requirements on a per-person basis, they determined that food self-sufficiency could be achieved within 100 years at a population of 1 million people. Massive food imports would be required, although ISRU food production will decrease this need over time. 10.1089/space.2019.0018.

India’s Vikram Moon lander disappears. After a much anticipated lunar landing approach, contact was lost with the lander about 2.1 km above the lunar surface. Details are sparse, but it is assumed the lander crashed into the surface. The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has failed to locate the lander when it overflew the area a few days afterward. Hopefully the Indian space agency releases a report on their analysis of the event.

$2.7 billion deal inked for three Orion capsules. NASA has awarded this first phase of funding to Lockheed Martin to build the three capsules that will each carry four astronauts to the Moon by 2024. The Orion capsule will act as the Earth to lunar orbit vehicle for the NASA Artemis program. The contract allows NASA to order three more capsules during 2022 for an extra $1.9 billion. The first uncrewed flight of Artemis is set for 2020. Link.

Using groups of robots to explore lunar pits autonomously. William Whittaker provided updates on his Phase III NIAC study at the 2019 NIAC Symposium. By combining in-situ modeling, autonomous navigation, and small form factors, it will be possible to explore lunar lava tubes. Next step work will study how to enter unexplored caves by lowering rovers through skylight features. Link.

MVP for producing propellant from permanently shadowed region ices. George Sowers presented his NIAC updates of system diagrams of the components for propellant production along with launch requirements needed to enable this. His work also includes lab testing of thermal mining on lunar ice simulants under cryogenic vacuum conditions, along with an architecture of solar reflectors on lunar crater rims in near eternal light and a dome structure with cryotraps on the shadowed floor for mining water ice. Link

Proposed water based architecture at the lunar poles. While at the 2019 NIAC Symposium, Joel Sercel gave presented his lunar polar gas-dynamic mining outpost, a broad architecture for transferring solar energy to a lunar PSR with 1 km towers, and extraction of ices using mobile collectors with microwave, radio frequency, and infrared radiation. Fuel cell powered vehicles transport materials, creating a full architecture enabled by solar and the use of lunar water based propellant. Link.


Structures

First concrete pour in space. A research study evaluated how normal cement sets on Earth vs in microgravity while aboard the ISS. The core results showed that cured cement processed in microgravity has a uniform density and porosity, 20% increase in porosity, an order of magnitude larger pore diameter, and uniform crystal distribution. The strength of the cured concrete was not tested, unfortunately. Also, these tests were conducted in sealed pouches on the ISS and not in vacuum, so further research is required to determine how best to use concrete in places that are hostile to liquid water.  10.3389/fmats.2019.00083.

Start of multi-year study to design autonomous space habitat systems. Called HOME (Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration), the multi-university collaboration will study how to integrate automation, machine learning, and robotics into deep-space habitat design. HOME is a division within the NASA funded Space Technology Research Institute, with about $15 million in funding that should last for five years. Link.