NASA’s Plan To Mine The Moon

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

May 22, 2015 – NASA’s Resource Prospector aims to be the first mining expedition on another world. Using a suite of instruments to locate elements from a lunar polar region, the planned rover is designed to excavate volatiles such as hydrogen, oxygen and water from the moon. Building on the findings of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) missions that proved the existence of water on the moon, Resource Prospector plans to take the next step and harvest those resources.

Why Mine the Moon?

Utilizing resources found naturally in extraterrestrial soil, or “in-situ resource utilization” (ISRU), will foster more affordable and sustainable human exploration to many deep-space destinations. Humans living, working and exploring other planetary bodies must be able to make their own breathable air and potable water. The basic components that we know exist on the moon – hydrogen and oxygen—can be used to make these vital consumables, but those same elements also comprise the most vital building blocks of rocket fuel and could even help to form basic materials required for in-space manufacturing.

Launching one pound of any material into space costs thousands of dollars. One gallon of water weighs more than eight pounds, so the ability to generate water, air and fuel in space could represent enormous cost savings for future deep-space missions.

Into the Proving Ground: On the Journey to Mars

The Journey to Mars includes three phases, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth: Earth Reliant, Proving Ground and Earth Independent. Earth-Reliant missions include our current activities in low-Earth orbit and on the International Space Station. Starting in the 2020s, Proving-Ground missions in cis-lunar space will validate our ability to break ties with Earth and prove deep-space operations and capabilities while remaining relatively close to our home planet. Earth-Independent missions, including those to the Mars system and beyond, will require humans to live and work independently from Earth, without the benefit of a robust logistics resupply chain like the one we have built in low-Earth orbit.

Resource Prospector is an early expedition in the Proving Ground that will help NASA and its partners to better understand the quality and quantity of water and other volatiles on the moon that could support human explorers on the lunar surface, orbiting above in cis-lunar space, or on their way to destinations farther into the solar system, such as Mars. The technologies and operational capabilities that Resource Prospector validates also will have direct extensibility toward how we may someday harvest resources on Mars, an asteroid, or other planetary bodies.

Mission Overview

NASA plans to launch Resource Prospector in 2020. After a 3-day journey from the Earth to the moon, the lander will set down on the lunar surface and deploy a rover carrying the ISRU instruments. As the rover traverses the lunar surface, it will use prospecting tools to search for sub-surface water, hydrogen and other volatiles.

When an appropriate location is found, a drill will extract samples of the lunar regolith from as deep as one meter below the surface. The sample will be heated in an oven to determine the type and quantity of elements and compounds such as hydrogen, nitrogen, helium, methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide – and most importantly, water!

Harvesting consumables and fuel off of Earth is an important step in truly pioneering space. Just like great pioneers of the past, humans settling deep space must be able to produce or source their food and fuel wherever they may be, whether on the moon, the moons of Mars, or on the Red Planet itself.

Resource Prospector is a NASA-led collaboration that includes international space agency and industry partner participation to maximize the value to all interested space faring organizations.