NASA plans to return to the moon in the next decade, and it won’t just be for a quick visit this time. The agency wants to establish a long-term human presence on and in space around the moon, but that’s going to require new technologies. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program aims to develop those technologies, and two NAIC projects have just advanced to phase III study, the furthest any of them have gotten.
The first phase III proposal comes from Carnegie Mellon University, and it focuses on creating accurate models of craters on the surface of the moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been mapping the moon for the past decade, but so-called Skylight mission (above) would use go a step further using high-resolution cameras on a rover to create full 3D models of craters.
NASA believes such models of the surface would help determine which craters are best suited to robotic and human exploration. This could be essential for finding and exploiting deposits of ice that exist on the moon. Back on Earth, the same technology might be able to monitor mines and quarries.
The other project is also connected to in situ resource utilization. The Mini Bee concept is a mission focusing on “optical mining” that uses solar reflectors to power its mining operations. Based on work from California’s TransAstra Corporation, the Mini Bee could demonstrate the means to mine asteroids for water and other volatiles. An eventual version of the technology would collect resources from asteroids in an inflatable bag before meeting up with NASA’s Gateway station in lunar orbit.
Neither of these technologies exist in real life just yet. In phase III development, NASA will give each team up to $2 million in grants to refine the designs over the course of two years. At that point, NASA will decide whether or not to proceed with further development.
These won’t be the last NIAC projects to move forward, either. NASA will advance at least one more project to phase III per year as it moves toward a moon mission. NASA’s Artemis program aims to land on the moon by 2024 with a sustained human presence in place by 2028. What NASA learns from the Artemis will inform the way it plans and implements future missions to Mars.
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