Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is among 10 teams that will share about $10 million in NASA funding to look into techniques for using resources from the moon and Mars.
The studies are aimed at advancing technologies for in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU.
Such technologies could, for example, make use of ice in lunar soil to produce drinkable water, breathable oxygen and rocket propellants for refueling spacecraft. To cite another example, carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere could contribute to the production of methane fuel.
Relying on ISRU resource processing would reduce the amount of fuel and supplies that’d have to be launched from Earth for missions heading to the moon, Mars or other space destinations.
NASA has set up three research tracks as part of its public-private NextSTEP-D program. “NextSTEP” stands for “Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships.” The D refers to Appendix D of the NextSTEP-2 program description, which focuses on ISRU technologies.
- Track 1 supports one-year trade studies to identify ISRU technology gaps and further define the benefits of including ISRU in mission architectures. In addition to Blue Origin, Track 1 participants include United Launch Alliance, the University of Illinois at Urbana and UTC Aerospace Systems.
- Track 2 supports component development and testing in simulated space environments. Companies selected for Track 2 are BlazeTech Corp., Paragon Space Development Corp., Skyhaven Systems and Teledyne Energy Systems.
- Track 3 focuses on extensive subsystem development and testing in simulated space environments. The Track 3 companies are Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corp. and OxEon Energy LLC.
Track 2 and Track 3 projects could continue for as long as three and a half years, NASA said. Contract amounts still have to be negotiated, but the selected teams will be required to put “skin in the game” and make corporate contributions to their efforts.
Jason Crusan, NASA’s director of advanced exploration systems, said the space agency is already learning about the potential value of lunar resources for human exploration.
“If we can find smart ways to harness its resources now, those capabilities will help shape our long-term exploration goals, including partnership and commercial opportunities with and for U.S. industry,” Crusan said today in a news release. “Furthermore, these capabilities will help us prepare for ISRU on Mars and other planetary bodies in deep space.”
NASA’s current timeline sets 2022 as the date to begin building an outpost in lunar orbit and start sending medium-class landers to the lunar surface.
In addition to its New Shepard suborbital spaceship and its New Glenn orbital-class rocket, Blue Origin is working on the development of a Blue Moon lunar lander that could go into operation as part of a public-private partnership by the mid-2020s. United Launch Alliance has partnered with Masten Space Systems on a different lunar lander system known as Xeus.
Bezos said last week at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference that Blue Origin would build any type of hardware needed to facilitate the establishment of lunar settlements.
“We’ll do stepwise whatever we need to do to get that vision to happen,” he said.
Update for 4:47 p.m. PT May 31: Fixed the spelling of Jason Crusan’s name. (“S,” not “Z”!)