NASA Funds Lunar ISRU Technology Development

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected two projects focused on finding and extracting lunar resources for continued funding under phase II of its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Radiation Detection Technologies, Inc. of Manhattan, Kan., was selected to continue developing a neutron energy detector capable of locating sub-surface ice deposits.

Physical Sciences, Inc. (PSI), of Andover, Mass., is developing a solar concentrator system that would extract oxygen from lunar regolith.

SBIR phase II awards are valued at up to $750,000 apiece. NASA previously selected both projects for smaller phase I awards.

Radiation Detection Technologies is developing a micro-sized detector called NeuRover “that will allow for a single mission to disperse numerous micro-rovers over a much wider range than is possible with a single rover,” the company said in the project summary.

“An application for a roving (autonomous), robust neutron energy spectrometer would be in the field of nuclear waste monitoring and mapping,” the summary added. “It is possible that with the increase in nuclear fuel and waste storage, and along with the unfortunate radiological accidents at various sites, e.g., Hanford, Fukushima Daiichi, NeuRover’s remote roving capability may be beneficial for inspecting these sites.”

PSI’s solar concentrator would heat lunar regolith to extract oxygen from it.

“In this system, solar radiation is collected using a concentrator array that transfers the concentrated solar radiation to the optical waveguide (OW) transmission cable made of low loss optical fibers. The OW transmission line directs the solar radiation to the thermal receiver for thermo-chemical processing of lunar regolith,” PSI said in the project summary.

The company said the technology could also be used to sinter lunar regolith for surface stabilization and construction, generate thermal or electric power, and to grow plants.

Summaries of the selected projects follow.

Solar Concentrator System for Lunar ISRU Applications
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen from Lunar Regolith

Physical Sciences, Inc.
Andover, MA

Principal Investigator
William Kessler

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 5
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI) proposes to develop a solar concentrator system for lunar In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) applications. In this system, solar radiation is collected using a concentrator array that transfers the concentrated solar radiation to the optical waveguide (OW) transmission cable made of low loss optical fibers. The OW transmission line directs the solar radiation to the thermal receiver for thermo-chemical processing of lunar regolith.

Key features of the proposed system are:

  1. Highly concentrated solar radiation (10– 104 suns) are transmitted via the flexible OW cable directly to the thermal receiver for oxygen production from lunar regolith;
  2. Power scale-up of the system is achieved by incremental increase of the number of concentrator units;
  3. The system can be autonomous, stationary or mobile, and easily transported and deployed on the lunar surface; and
  4. The system can be applied to multiple lunar ISRU processes.

PSI proposes to develop component and subsystem technologies for the solar concentrator system for lunar ISRU applications including: oxygen extraction from lunar regolith. 

At the conclusion of the proposed effort, PSI will have demonstrated collection and transmission of the solar power using an optical wave guide consistent with the requirements of the Lunar ISRU application of oxygen production. 

The Phase II demonstration will use a single facet solar collector, capture of the solar radiation using a light-weight, space qualifiable optical waveguide and transmission and illumination of a simulated regolith material consistent with the requirements of a carbothermal reactor used for the production of oxygen for Lunar applications.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary application of the proposed solar concentrator system is for the production of oxygen and other useful materials on the lunar surface. The solar concentrator system can be used for sintering lunar regolith for surface stabilization and construction.

In addition, the system can be used for thermal or electric power generation and plant lighting and illumination for the lunar base. Therefore, the solar concentrator system is the key enabling technology for building up the infrastructure for the lunar base.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

There are a number of terrestrial uses for the solar concentrator system related to heating applications including water heating (for domestic and industrial usage), transportable heat source for the detoxification of contaminated soil, heat engine for small power plants and industrial process heat. Also concentrator subsystems may find applications for building and indoor plant growth lighting.

Duration: 24 months

NeuRover: Rover Enabled Neutron Energy Detector for Lunar Resource Mapping
Subtopic: Payloads for Lunar Resources: Volatiles

Radiation Detection Technologies, Inc.
Manhattan, KS

Principal Investigator
Dr. Steven Bellinger

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

High-spatial (<10-m/pixel) resolution orbital instruments are only capable of detecting surficial ice and subsurface ice estimates for Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) are ambiguous and remain controversial.

Orbiting neutron spectrometer instruments are capable of measuring hydrogen within the top 10s of cms of regolith but are limited to spatial resolution in the 100’s of km^2. Reducing the spatial resolution of such an instrument via collimation is technically challenging.

Alternatively, a neutron spectrometer instrument on a lunar rover would be able to measure hydrogen and He-3 within the top meter of regolith with a spatial resolution of ~1-m^2, similar to the cancelled RESOLVE mission.

The RESOLVE rover was a large rover capable of prospecting for lunar ice, drilling into such ice, and determining the actual ice content. Thus, the area at which RESOLVE could prospect was hampered by the objectives of the other instruments.

Therefore, this work aims to resurrect the prospecting part of the RESOLVE rover by allowing a small size and low cost of the micro-sized detector/rover package “the NeuRover” that will allow for a single mission to disperse numerous micro-rovers over a much wider range than is possible with a single rover.

The high-resolution data will be invaluable for future lunar exploration as it would allow future in-situ exploration to of highly concentrated locations of hydrogen.

Additionally, such a mission could revolutionize our understanding of trapped volatiles on planetary bodies (e.g., Moon, Mercury, Ceres), as it will better map the heterogeneity vertically and laterally of hydrogen deposits.

The innovation proposed is a small-mass, low-power, Neutron Energy Spectrometer (NES) for Mapping of Sub-Surface Lunar water content that can be supported by a micro-sized rover.

The Team has previously developed an instrument that can measure the hydrogen content (water) of soil by stacking alternating layers of neutron absorber, moderator, and detectors. 

Potential NASA Applications

Provide a viable semiconductor-based neutron energy spectrometer (NES) for remote lunar soil moisture determination CONOPS. A compact, low-power NES/NeuRover would yield benefits to the NASA mission beyond the search for hydrogen below the lunar surface as proposed.

A major hurdle to overcome to ensure the success of the human exploration of space and extraterrestrial bodies is to limit the radiation dose to astronauts. A commercially-available NeuRover system could inexpensively map unknown areas before human astronauts arrive for missions.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

An application for a roving (autonomous), robust neutron energy spectrometer would be in the field of nuclear waste monitoring and mapping. It is possible that with the increase in nuclear fuel and waste storage, and along with the unfortunate radiological accidents at various sites, e.g., Hanford, Fukushima Daiichi, NeuRover’s remote roving capability may be beneficial for inspecting these sites.

Duration: 24 months