NASA has announced that it has invested in the first-ever Phase III studies within the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. NASA notes that it is pursuing new tech that would help to make deep space exploration more “Earth-independent” by using resources found on the moon and beyond for future missions. The two Phase III selection proposals will each receive $2 million in funding.
Over the course of two years, researchers on the projects will refine their concept designs and explore aspects of how the new tech would be implemented. The first two Phase III selections are Robotic Technologies Enabling the Exploration of Lunar Pits and the Mini Bee Prototype to Demonstrate the Apis Mission Architecture and Optical Mining Technology.
The lunar pit exploration project is run by William Whittaker, from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburg. The mission concept is called Skylight and involves technology that will rapidly survey and model lunar caters. The mission aims to use high-resolution images to create 3D models of craters. The data could be used to determine if human or robotic missions could explore the craters.
The mission could also be used to characterize ice on the Moon. The same tech could be used here on Earth to monitor mines and quarries autonomously. The other project is the Mini Bee that is a flight demonstration concept mission that promises a method of asteroid resource harvesting called optical mining. Optical mining involves excavating an asteroid and extracting water and other volatiles into an inflatable bag called Mini Bee.
The mission aims to prove that optical mining, in conjunction with other innovative spacecraft systems, can be used to obtain propellant in space. NASA points out that the projects are still in the early stages of development. These projects were selected from a review process that evaluated available projects for innovativeness and technical viability of the proposals.