The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has selected Deep Space Industries (DSI), Silicon Valley, California, to develop methods to excavate and process asteroid soil and study methods to manufacture propellant from asteroid materials.
The NASA contracts come in the wake of DSI receiving a contract from Dunvegan Space Systems to build 24 nanostellite “BitSat” constellations.
The NIAC contract calls for NASA to fund research into the development of propellants from asteroid material that can be carried on long expeditions without requiring refrigeration. Carbonaceous chondrite asteroids contain 10 to 30 percent water and other volatile substances. Dormant comets may contain up to 75 percent volatiles.
Ideas for using water harvested from asteroids and comets as an in-space propellant envisions splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and then drastically chilling the two to create liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Currently, these cryogenic fuels must be used almost immediately after launch before they warm up and boil off. The NIAC contract asks DSI to create room-temperature fuels such as methane by combining hydrogen from water with carbon available on many asteroids. These propellants are storable and will not boil off during deep space missions that may last for months to years.
The SBIR contract calls for NASA to fund the first phase of research into creating asteroid regolith simulants. The simulants will be used in the terrestrial testing of harvesting and processing technologies. Working in conjunction with the University of Central Florida (UCF), DSI will design, prototype and test a variety of asteroid simulants needed to validate most aspects of asteroid In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) processes. ISRU refers to the use of resources found or manufactured on other astronomical objects. The process will permit affordable extraterrestrial exploration by minimizing the materials carried from Earth.
The processes include physical simulants for excavation, transfer, and preparation; chemical/mineralogical/volatile simulants for processing tests that include propellant production, metal extraction, and oxygen production; and simulants to evaluate scientific and commercial instrumentation. The simulants created from this project will be commercially available in the near future, improving the validity of any number of scientific technological experiments in both the private and public sector.
“Simulants are needed in order to adequately test equipment and processes prior to launch to an actual asteroid. The simulant may need to adequately reproduce the physical characteristics of an asteroid to validate sampling techniques, anchoring methods, or to test hazards such as dust production,” said DSI Chief Scientist and SBIR principal investigator, Dr. John Lewis. “A simulant may need to reproduce the appearance and spectrum of an asteroid, in any of several wavelength ranges. It may need to replicate the mineralogy and possibly the volatiles content to test related instrumentation. Creating accurate and standardized simulants is a vital step in ensuring the consistency of scientific data in the testing of in-space harvesting and processing technologies.”
Deep Space Industries will complete the first phase of the SBIR contract by the end of the year. The NIAC contract should be completed by early 2016, in conjunction with ongoing spacecraft development projects.
NASA has selected research and technology proposals from 254 small businesses and 39 research institutions in the United States under the SBIR grant program. The purpose of the program is to develop new technologies that will further NASA’s journey to Mars project.
NASA has selected 15 proposals for study under Phase I of the NIAC program, which will develop pioneering technologies that will assist in the exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, and missions to asteroids and Mars.