Lava tubes on the Moon represent an enticing location for establishing lunar habitats. In addition to providing protection from radiation and meteorites, lunar lava tubes have a stable temperature range compared to surface conditions. These characteristics will allow the building of safe, yet economical habitats in lava tubes. However, we must first explore and categorize lava tubes before establishing the first settlements in them. One likely platform for enabling this exploration is via the Moon Diver mission and the tethered Axel rover.
Although multiple landers and rovers have touched down on the Moon, no vehicle has visited the Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) at the lunar poles. Water ice has been observed within some PSRs, and therefore represents an ideal target for future lunar missions. An important unknown to study before the first PSR mission is understanding the surface environment, including how much mass the PSR regolith can support. It is critical that rover wheels and landing pads don’t sink into the regolith. To study this, a recent analysis used boulder tracks to evaluate the bearing capacity of regolith in these areas.
After less than three months in orbit, the NASA OSIRIS-REx mission has already made several discoveries about the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Bennu. Most promising for resource utilization is the presence of water-bearing (hydrated) materials. However, the environment is dangerous with particle ejections from unknown sources, many large boulders, and an ever accelerating rotation rate. Asteroid exploration and processing missions are in for a challenge!
The permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) at the lunar poles represent prime locations for finding high concentrations of water bearing material on the Moon. Even though PSRs have been remotely observed for the past few decades, much is still unknown about these areas. Key questions include the origin of the ice, how extensive it is, and how it changes over time. A recent model addresses some of these questions by predicting how long near-surface ice should exists before being sublimated away.
A key appeal for processing water from asteroids as opposed to the Moon is the low delta-V required to get to and from them. However, this assumes that water rich asteroids come near Earth. Scientists from the Planetary Science Institute have recently developed an analytical model that can help estimate if some near-Earth objects (NEOs) contain water ice.
The quiet, everlasting vacuum has been a steady companion. After millions of years, a new visitor emerged from the darkness. Normally visitors come barreling in and cause a significant disturbance. Unusually, this visitor remained in a cautious orbit for a few months. Out of nowhere, this new companion approached with a strange appendage and fired a metal slug into the surface. Materials ejected were collected in a surgical fashion before the visitor retreated back to a safe distance. Quietness once again enveloped the scene.
As indicated by the title of Robert Heinlein's 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the Moon is a harsh environment to operate in. There is a scant atmosphere, abrasive dust, and extreme temperature ranges to deal with. Observed temperatures range from a blistering 127 C (260 F) in equatorial sunlight down to a frosty -238 C (-397 F) in the permanently shadowed regions of the poles. Designing missions to survive these conditions pushes current technology to its limits.
The space industry is in the midst of a data revolution. The two key trends causing this include data proliferation and commercialization. This is interesting because both scientists and commercial players are participants in this change. The rise of petabyte size data releases and privatization of data will forever change how space observations are made and used.
Mars is a treasure chest full of resources. Of all the available resources on Mars, water is the resource with the greatest utility. Aside from the possibility that it can contain extra-terrestrial life, it can be used for creating fuels and oxidizers, drinking water, agriculture, chemical processes, and more. The key question to resolve is: Where on Mars can we find large quantities of water that are easily accessible? Martian glaciers at mid-latitudes hold promise for being that ideal source.
Processing water from near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) promises to be a key approach for delivering propellant to Earth orbit. Two proposed systems include TransAstra's Queen Bee spacecraft and Honeybee Robotics' WINE system. Before either of these missions can be launched, they will need to know where they are going and what to expect. Unfortunately you can't simply search for which NEA you should send a mission to. How will TransAstra and Honeybee Robotics decide where to go? Through lots of remote observations, a bit of data science, and talking with experts.