Roving for resources on an analog Moon

Humans history is a story of exploration and expansion, whereby we have used our resourcefulness to settle nearly every environment on Earth. To accomplish these migrations, people have had to live off the land by hunting for food, gathering building materials, and mining resources needed for survival. It just wouldn't be practical or economical to bring everything you need with you. Space is the same way. Like on Earth, we will have to learn to use materials found in the space environment to become permanent residents of the extraterrestrial realm, rather than temporary campers.
As I mentioned in the last post, I went to Hawai'i Island last week to take part in NASA's in situ resource utilization (ISRU) lunar rover field testing, facilitated by the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) on the flank of Mauna Kea. The mission simulation successfully showed that a rover arriving on the surface of the Moon can find and verify the existence of subsurface water ice within a 5-7 day timeframe expected for a lunar polar mission. NASA is gearing up to fly this prospecting mission around 2017 to confirm the presence of water ice and other volatiles. Once we know for sure that there is accessible water on the Moon, the next step will be designing more sophisticated missions to harvest the resource on a larger scale to make consumables that will drive down the cost of space exploration.

This field campaign consisted of two projects carried out at two nearby Mauna Kea locations. The main project was RESOLVE, which stands for "Regolith and Environment Science & Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction." RESOLVE represents the third generation of ISRU technologies previously tested in 2008 and 2010. This time, the systems were completely integrated onto one rover, which was remotely controlled with lunar-like communications, power, and other operational constraints. NASA conducted the demonstration as if it were a real mission with control centers in Hawaii, Texas, Florida, and Canada, along with an additional science backroom in California. The Hawaii control center was a bustling room with about 30 people sitting at computer terminals in constant communication working on an array of tasks to keep the systems running smoothly. Here I am sitting at the real-time science desk.


A RESOLVE to mine the Moon

I will be on the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii next week working with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES). As I've described in previous posts, PISCES is an international research and education consortium headquartered at the University of Hawaii at Hilo that aims to develop, test, and validate technologies for use on the Moon, Mars and beyond. When humans return to the Moon and journey to Mars, they will have to live off the land. It's just too costly to bring everything we need with us. That includes rocket fuel for the return trip, water, oxygen, and other consumables. Thus, it is critical that we learn how to utilize in situ resources if we are to establish permanent presences on other worlds.

As a geophysicist by profession, my interest lies with applying my terrestrial geophysical exploration knowledge to other planetary bodies. To this end, I carried out experiments at FMARS in 2009 and MDRS in 2010 to study the human factors elements associated with astronaut-conducted geophysical surveys to prospect for subsurface resources like water. I presented my findings at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference and Lunar Science Forum, the results of which became my UND master's thesis. Now, I am embarking on a Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii to take this work to another level in analog environments such as Hawaii.

CSA's Artemis Jr. rover with the NASA RESOLVE payload. (credit: NASA)
The main system being tested at PISCES this year is the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) experiment. This consists of a lunar rover and drill provided by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to support a NASA payload that turns regolith (dirt) into rocket fuel, water, and air. A system developed from the RESOLVE prototype may travel to the Moon in the next few years to prove that water seen from orbit is accessible and that useful products can be made from it.  It could be the key that finally makes the solar system accessible to humans in a safe, cost-efficient manner.