Moon Express sees the moon as critical for humanity to become a multi-world species, and that our sister world, the Moon, is an eighth continent holding vast resources than can help us enrich and secure our future.
MoonEx had been planning to place the International Lunar Observatory (ILO) on the Moon as early as 2018. The plan calls for placement of both a 2 meters (6 ft 7 in) radio telescope as well as an optical telescope at the South Pole of the Moon.
Rick Tumlinson, chairman of Deep Space Industries, plans to land its first prospector on an asteroid by 2020.
Deep Space Industries will use small scouts to explore and study prospective targets. A larger robot will land on high value asteroids to mine and process material. It will use solar power to evaporate and capture water from the sample.
“Water, we believe, is relatively easy to harvest from asteroid materials,” said Tumlinson.
By 2025 they could be producing serious quantities of resources.
The purpose of asteroid mining is to collect fuel and building materials harvested from near Earth asteroids and provide them to commercial and government missions. One major challenge to making asteroid mining a reality is slowing down the returning mining spacecraft as they approach Earth. Returning from distant destinations, these spacecraft will be traveling at high speeds, so slowing them down enough to slip into orbit is quite difficult.
Current braking methods call for the returning asteroid mining spacecraft to expend a great deal of propellant to slow itself down enough to achieve low Earth orbit insertion. However, propellant is heavy and valuable, so if another way of slowing the spacecraft could be devised, it would significantly help the economics of asteroid mining missions.
The NASA grant will research the manufacturing of an aerobrake system from the asteroid’s regolith (soil) collected from mining operations. The idea is that the fully laden asteroid mining spacecraft will use the collected material to manufacture a braking system during its journey back to Earth’s orbit. The aerobrake system would act as a large heat shield that would allow the spacecraft to pass through Earth’s atmosphere, creating enough drag to slow down the payload without using propellant.
“Using aerobrakes instead of propellant will expand by 30 to 100 times the number of asteroids where water and other supplies can be affordably delivered to markets in Earth orbit,” said Dr. John S. Lewis, chief scientist at DSI. “In the near future,” explains Lewis, “asteroid resources will support space stations, expeditions to the Moon and Mars, and the transfer of payloads from low orbit to geosynchronous orbit by space-based tugs refueled with asteroid propellant.”
Planetary Resources is also focused on water.
“You can concentrate that solar energy and heat up the surface of the asteroid and literally bake off the water in the same way you’d bake a clay pot,” says CEO Chris Lewicki.
Both Lewicki and Tumlinson want to supply building materials in space, which could allow for the construction of super-massive floating structures that would be ungainly to launch from Earth.