NASA seeks proposals for space resources technologies

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HOUSTON — NASA is seeking proposals for studies and technology development efforts related to the use of space resources, particularly as they apply to future human missions to the moon and Mars.

NASA issued Dec. 4 an appendix to its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships 2 (NextSTEP-2) program, calling for proposals on studies and technology development efforts related to what’s known as in situ resource utilization, or ISRU.

The program will cover both trade studies as well as development of key components and subsystems needed to extract water, carbon dioxide and other volatiles from the Martian atmosphere and the soils of Mars, the moon, and asteroids. Such resources can then be used for life support and as propellants, reducing the reliance future expeditions have on resources transported, at significant expense, from Earth.

NASA plans to make the bulk of the awards in one of three tracks, devoted to the development and testing of components for ISRU systems. In its solicitation, the agency said it expects to make between one and three such awards, valued at $250,000 to $500,000 per year for up to three years.

NASA also plans to make a similar number of awards for trade studies that will examine architectures for ISRU systems and technology gaps, with each valued at about $50,000. NASA expects to make one award for both component and subsystem development worth $250,000 to $750,000 a year for up to three and a half years. As with other NextSTEP projects, NASA expects companies to share in the costs of the projects.

The announcement comes as there is growing commercial interest in extracting resources from asteroids, in particular water from subsurface ice or hydrated minerals that could be used for propellant or life support. Companies such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are planning robotic missions in the next several years to visit near Earth asteroids to determine the presence and accessibility of water.

“We are very much a mining company that is operating in space, rather than a space or a space technology company,” said James Orsulak, director of sales and business development at Planetary Resources, during a panel discussion Dec. 5 at the SpaceCom Expo here.

Planetary Resources is launching a six-unit cubesat in January, one of a number of secondary payloads on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle mission, to test sensor technologies. Orsulak said the company is focused on a 2020 mission that will fly six spacecraft to six asteroids, mapping their surfaces for water resources and firing penetrator probes to perform analysis.

“That mission is really designed to help inform what is the first mine, what is the first asteroid that we will pick for the first mine,” he said.

The new NASA solicitation may not be of much help to asteroid mining companies, as it is focused primarily on using lunar and Martian resources. The interest in asteroids, as well as the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos, is limited to “trade studies that address technical feasibility and identify critical architecture and technology gaps,” the solicitation states.

NASA, though, is interested in commercial applications of the technology, requiring bidders to discuss how the proposed studies and technologies “meets NASA’s strategy to stimulate the commercial space industry while leveraging commercial space and terrestrial capabilities.”

The emergence of space resources companies also encouraged NASA to pursue this project. Diane Linne, a senior research engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center who is project manager for an ISRU technology project supported by the agency’s human exploration and operations mission directorate, said on the panel that those companies’ efforts helped persuade NASA to invest in ISRU technology research. “Now we have a budget, and it’s our turn to help you.”

Space resources, whether developed for NASA missions or produced commercially, remains a long-term endeavor. “If you’re looking for a profit in three years or four years or something like that, you’re not going to find it in this kind of a company in a big way,” said Rick Tumlinson, founder of Deep Space Industries. “However, the payoff in the long term can be incredibly huge.”