NASA, CSA Plan Lunar Water Extraction Mission

Resource Prospector Mission field test in Hawaii. (Credit: NASA)
Resource Prospector Mission field test in Hawaii. (Credit: NASA)

This would be a really cool mission:

Following a series of reconnaissance missions that found hydrogen and then water on the Moon, NASA is laying the groundwork for a lunar rover that would scout for subsurface volatiles and extract them for processing.

The heart of the proposed  (RPM) is the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) payload, a technology development initiative that predates its official start two years ago in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division.

Notionally targeted for launch in 2018, RPM would be NASA’s first attempt to demonstrate in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) beyond Earth. The agency has spent just north of $20 million on the project to date, but expects its investment to top out around a quarter of a billion dollars.

“The concept of RPM came up out of the need to fly RESOLVE and the near-term, close way to test that would be on the Moon,” said Jason Crusan, NASA’s chief technologist for space operations.

Irene Klotz has the full story over at Space News.

I also found the following information about the mission in a PowerPoint presentation that Dr. Chris Moore gave to the NASA Advisory Council last July.

  • The Resource Prospector Mission (RPM) is being jointly developed by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to prospect for ice in the polar regions of the Moon. RPM is targeted for launch in 2018.
  • Utilizing lunar resources to produce oxygen and propellants could enable new mission architectures for human exploration.
  • RPM consists of a rover, a subsurface sampling drill, a small oven to heat regolith samples, and instruments to characterize volatiles.
  • Issued RFI on July 2 for NASA-industry partnerships to develop a robotic lunar lander. Potential NASA contributions include technical expertise, test facilities, and hardware or software. Commercial lander could support NASA missions such as lunar resource prospecting and sample return. Responses are due on August 2.
  • Mission Concept Review for Resource Prospecting Mission will be held at ARC on September 17. Continuing to work with JAXA on defining a lunar lander concept based on SELENE 2.
  • Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) is interested in providing a lunar communications relay for the Resource Prospecting Mission on their 2017 pathfinder orbiter.

  • Carolynne Campbell

    The first step on the way to Mars? BTW, does NASA have its own acronym department, or is that job subcontracted out?

  • Stuart

    A subtle response to Jade Rabbit?

  • windbourne

    Plenty of managers there.

  • windbourne

    I doubt it. I think that NASA is simply pushing what they have done all along. Basically, they are pushing frontiers.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Problem is that it’s not really a step towards Mars. I fail to how “testing” this water extraction technology/technique on the Moon translates to doing the same on Mars any more than testing it on Earth would.

  • Idylwyld

    As far as I know, there have been no actual ISRU experiments outside of Earth (lots of analog experiments, but no in-field testing). The challenges will be different on Mars, but not radically so. Let’s hope the 2020 Mars rover gets the proposed ISRU devices too.

  • Tonya

    Lunar water is a potential fuel to get to Mars, rather than a testbed analogue for a process on Mars. It’s a valid view which was at the heart of the original White House (Bush) VSE a decade ago.

    My personal view is that whilst lunar resources may be very valuable, that shouldn’t be put forward as a prerequisite to reaching Mars. Now that we have the prospect of lower launch prices, a simple calculation demonstrates that it’s cheaper to simply launch the fuel from Earth for early missions.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “Now that we have the prospect of lower launch prices, a simple calculation demonstrates that it’s cheaper to simply launch the fuel from Earth for early missions.”
    Exactly. You’d have to generate hundreds of tonnes of LOX then take it to LEO, fuel the waiting Mars transport (which is already half way to Mars, since it’s in LEO) and then return the LOX tanker to the lunar surface. By the time this sort of heavy industry becomes established on the Moon, the favoured method of LEO to LMO will be probably be electric propulsion. Not to mention that in the 30-40 years (minimum) that it’s gonna take to establish this sort of extensive industrial process on the lunar surface, the price of lifting propellent from Earth will likely be close to cost competitive anyway due to the sheer volume of traffic to LEO and the far easier maintenance cycle for the hardware.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “As far as I know, there have been no actual ISRU experiments outside of Earth!”
    So, do it for a dare, or just because no-one’s done it before. If you can do 6-10 of testing on the Moon for $250M, then you can build a Mars atmosphere and soil simulation chamber on Earth and test it for hundreds of days for less money.

    “The challenges will be different on Mars, but not radically so.”
    OR
    The challenges of doing this on Earth will be different than on Mars, but not radically so.

  • Idylwyld

    The value of this lunar ISRU experiment will benefit all future resource utilization off planet, on the moon, on Mars, any planetary body. And while testing on Earth is valuable, you do have to experiment in space, many times, before you can send ISRU equipment as mission critical components.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Really?. Well I presume you will be able to explain why then; by which I do not mean, unsupported rhetoric. Prospecting on the Moon is interesting and perhaps useful in its own right, but how exactly does that translate directly to any other location, environment or occasion. What is it, do you think, about testing in “space”, that will ensure such a system will perform adequately on Mars. Your statements contain no logical argument as why such a system need be *tested* on the Moon. I am suspicious that you are making unjustified assumptions rather than actually thinking critically. Your argument is thus far empty.
    This experiment is good for one thing a one thing only: a first step at prospecting for water on the Moon. Nothing about it contributes in any way to resource utilisation in other locations that could not be achieved more usefully and more rigorously here on Earth.

  • Idylwyld

    Believe it or not, not every discussion on the internet has to turn into a pissing match. Yes, I believe that operating a Iunar ISRU will contribute to the understanding of ISRU on all planetary bodies. Separating hydrogen and oxygen on extraterrestrial bodies will share multiple similarities (i.e. how to operate remotely from Earth, challenges in storing on lower than Earth gravity, etc.) *I am not saying a system for testing a Martian ISRU needs to be tested on the moon first. I am saying this lunar ISRU will aid the understanding of all extraterrestrial ISRU, including Mars*

    I forgot that most people don’t discuss things on the internet, they just want to be right. So, I’m out. Plow ahead without me.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Yes that pesky low-grav and the challenges of storing volatiles in high pressure containments indeed. I will endeavour to plough without you.