In the much-advertised Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster movie ‘The Martian’ which is already taking viewers by storm one week after its theatrical release, a stranded NASA astronaut on Mars struggles to survive alone on the Red Planet while using local resources to stay alive. This fictional portrayal of in-situ resource utilisation on another planet is in the realm of possibility for the future in real life, and NASA is actively working on ways to turn this highly promising concept from vision to reality.
To that end, the US space agency has recently issued a request for proposals for its In-Situ Materials Challenge, inviting the public to submit designs for systems that could construct structural elements from materials that are native on the Moon, Mars and other extraterrestrial destinations.
The prospect of incorporating in-situ resource utilisation, or ISRU, as a critical part of a crewed space mission to other extraterrestrial destinations, has been a topic of much research even before the first humans ever set foot upon the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Even though it has never advanced beyond the conceptual stage, in-situ resource utilisation is considered as a game-changer for human missions beyond low-Earth orbit and rightly so. Contrary to taking all of their required supplies and material with them from Earth, astronauts on deep space missions could learn how to use local extraterrestrial resources instead for the creation of food, water oxygen and fuel, as well as for the construction of habitats, shielding equipment and other structures on other planetary surfaces.
Given that the current cost of launching 1 kg into low-Earth orbit is in the order of $10,000, the process of converting raw extraterrestrial resources into useful material and equipment for human deep space missions could be the key for turning the latter from financially unaffordable to affordable ones. With that in mind, NASA has already researched the concept of ISRU extensively, while several such analog field tests that the agency had conducted in the late 2000’s had returned promising results by demonstrating the successful processing and production of water, oxygen and other resources from simulated lunar regolith.
The space agency’s latest initiative on ISRU research was announced earlier this week on Oct. 7, at an event honoring the five years of operations of the Challenge.gov technical platform, which seeks to engage the public on finding solutions to scientific and technical problems through challenge and prize competitions. One of the platform’s newest listings, the In-Situ Materials Challenge is run by the Ohio-based NineSigma Inc. as part of NASA’s Tournament Lab which fosters competition among academia and industry for various research and development efforts. The goal of the In-Situ Materials Challenge is to select the best hardware design submitted from the public, for converting in-situ extraterrestrial materials into structural elements that would be useful for human space missions on the Moon and elsewhere. To that end, all interesting parties can apply and submit their entries at the NineSights community website, by December 3, 2015 on 5 PM EDT.
The Challenge’s incentives are a $10,000 prize for the first-place winner and two $2,500 prizes for second place. In order for design submissions to be eligible, they must “demonstrate and/or provide analysis that shows a method for converting granular regolith or basalt into a useful product to support manufacture of structural elements”, according to the Challenge’s rules, while the demonstrated technology must also be easy to operate and compact enough so that it can fit within certain payload package constrains. “NASA’s newest challenge is yet another stellar example of the agency’s commitment to harnessing the ingenuity of citizens as we seek to expand the frontiers of knowledge, capability and opportunity in space,” said Dr.Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, during the Challenge’s announcement on Oct. 7. “Exploring Mars and other worlds is a herculean endeavor. Like other agencies across the federal government, NASA recognizes that our success will be enhanced greatly by involving people with all kinds of knowledge, skill sets and ideas in our work,”
The selected winners for the In-Situ Materials Challenge will be announced in late January 2016, while the successful applicants will have the opportunity for a future collaboration with NASA as well. “In situ resource utilization is key to our exploration of the Universe,” says Robert Mueller, a senior technologist at Swamp Works, an engineering and development lab at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We must find ways to make what we need once we are at our destination. For example, the soil on Mars could be used to make modular structural building blocks to make shelters, landing pads and other useful structures. We are looking for creative and novel solutions from all types of people”.
If human missions on deep space destinations are to become affordable both technically and financially in the future, in-situ resource utilisation will have to play an increasingly larger role in their design. The rapid development of additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, could potentially be part of such ISRU technologies as well. Last year, astronauts on the International Space Station successfully demonstrated the construction of materials in microgravity through additive manufacturing, as part of NASA’s 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration. While previously placed firmly in the realm of science fiction, it’s not now inconceivable to imagine additive manufacturing technologies as an integral part of in-situ resource utilisation on future deep space missions to the Moon and Mars. “The utilization of native materials is a boon to construction whether Earth-based or extraterrestrial”, commented NineSigma Inc. in a press release on the announcement of NASA’s In-Situ Materials Challenge.
“The benefits are dramatic for space exploration because in-situ regolith utilization (ISRU) will reduce the need for materials to be shipped from Earth, which creates additional useful payload mass for habitats, structural systems, life support systems, science equipment, and living provisions. ISRU could potentially save the agency more than $100,000 per kilogram at launch, making space pioneering more affordable and feasible.”
In the same spirit of the Lewis and Clark Expedition which during the early 19th century traversed the then-uncharted lands of the western United States and learned to “live off the land”, the first human explorers of uncharted extraterrestrial lands during the 21st century will most probably follow in the footsteps of their ancestors and will learn to make the most of what their otherworldly locales will offer them.
.Missions » SLS »