NIAC Award: Thermal Mining of Ices on Cold Solar System Bodies

Thermal mining of ices on cold solar system bodies (Credit: George Sowers)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program
Phae I Award: Up to $125,000 for 9 Months

Thermal Mining of Ices on Cold Solar System Bodies
George Sowers
Colorado School of Mines

Innovation

  • Applying heat directly to frozen volatile bearing materials allows extraction of the volatile without the cost, mass and complexity of excavation.
  • Heat is applied directly to the surface in the form of redirected sunlight or subsurface via conducting rods or heaters emplaced in boreholes.
  • Vapor is captured within a dome-like tent and refrozen in cold traps for processing.

Technical Approach

  • Colorado School of Mines brings its world renowned expertise in terrestrial resource extraction to space.
  • We will explore locations throughout the solar system where Thermal Mining might be applicable.
  • We will develop a detailed mission scenario for the use of Thermal Mining for lunar water extraction.
  • We will test the effectiveness of various Thermal Mining techniques in our cryogenic vacuum chamber.

Potential & Benefits

  • Estimates for extracting water from the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon show Thermal Mining can produce industrial quantities of water (for propellant) for 60% less mass and energy than excavation.
  • Volatiles have many uses for space exploration and space commerce.
  • Propellant from lunar polar ice will lower all transportation costs beyond low Earth orbit by factors from three to seventy.

2019 Phase 1 and Phase II Selections
2011-2019 Consolidated List

  • Robert G. Oler

    go go go

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    I wonder how long it will take to refine twice the mass of water than the mass of the equipment. the operation should be making a profit at that point.

  • TheBrett

    Separating out the water locally would require that your mining rover/platform have substantial local power supplies (or at least a very large mirror to focus sunlight). It would also make it more complex than something that just cuts chunks of stuff out to return to base (especially if you do have areas that are mostly ice).

    I guess it could work, as long as the ice is concentrated in sheets rather than spread out in smaller areas within the dark craters.