The SBIR and NIAC awards will support development of asteroid regolith simulants and production of in-space propellants
Silicon Valley, CA – NASA has selected Deep Space Industries (DSI) for two contracts devoted to developing critical technologies for utilizing asteroid resources. One will support the development of asteroid regolith simulants for terrestrial testing of technologies for excavation and processing of asteroid soil. The second award funds the investigation of methods to manufacture propellant from asteroids material. These awards represent the third and fourth NASA contracts won by the Silicon Valley based company in its two year history.
“We are excited to be working with NASA again on these new contracts. They show that we are on the same page on the need to do precursor work today that can enable industrial space activities tomorrow,” said Deep Space Industries Chair Rick Tumlinson. “We thank the agency for allowing us to work with them on such pioneering projects that help both the public and private sectors open the frontier. These projects, along with our commercial contracts, strike the perfect balance and show that DSI is multi-dimensional in approaching our mission to harvest and utilize space resources.”
These NASA contracts come on the heels of DSI’s recent contract with Dunvegan Space Systems to build a 24 nanosatellite “BitSat” constellation. DSI’s “dual platform” path to success involves developing ground-breaking platforms for others to build their businesses on, specifically by developing the most cutting edge technology in the areas of space hardware and in-space resource utilization.
“A byproduct of our asteroid resource focus is the ability to design and fly innovative commercial spacecraft, like the recently announced BitSat constellation,” said DSI CEO Daniel Faber. “We’re continuing to build such capabilities for commercial customers, while working with NASA to develop our more long-term technologies related to the harvesting and processing of in-space resources. It’s a great fit all around.”
A NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant, titled “In-Space Manufacture of Storable Propellants” will fund research into propellants that can be made from asteroid material, and can be carried on long expeditions without requiring refrigeration. Carbonaceous chondrite asteroids contain 10 to 30 percent water and other volatiles. Dormant comets may contain up to 75 percent volatiles. Early ideas for using the water harvested from these resources as an in-space propellant envisioned splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and then drastically chilling them to create liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Currently, these cryogenic fuels must be used almost immediately after launch, before they warm up and boil off. By contrast, the NIAC award will look into creating room-temperature fuels such as methane, by combining the hydrogen from water with the carbon available on many asteroids. Storable propellants such as these will not boil off during deep space missions that may take months or years to complete.
“The ability to produce long-life propellants from near Earth asteroids will enable expanded robotic and human exploration of the solar system,” said Faber. “Delivering propellants to high Earth orbit from the ground now costs $20 million to $30 million per ton, while asteroid-derived fuel, delivered to high Earth orbit, may cost as little as one tenth of current prices, making long-term space missions more practical and affordable.”
A Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, titled “Task-Specific Asteroid Simulants for Ground Testing” will fund the first phase of research into creating asteroid regolith simulants. These simulants will be used in the terrestrial testing of harvesting and processing technologies. Working in conjunction with the University of Central Florida (UCF), DSI will design, prototype, and test a variety of asteroid simulants needed to validate most aspects of asteroid ISRU processes. These include physical simulants for excavation, transfer, and preparation; chemical/mineralogical/volatile simulants for processing tests such as propellant production, metals extraction, and oxygen production; and simulants to evaluate scientific and commercial instrumentation. The simulants created from this project will be commercially available in the near future, improving the validity of any number of scientific and technological experiments in both the private and public sectors.
“Simulants are needed in order to adequately test equipment and processes prior to launch to an actual asteroid. The simulant may need to adequately reproduce the physical characteristics of an asteroid to validate sampling techniques, anchoring methods, or to test hazards such as dust production,” said DSI Chief Scientist and SBIR principal investigator, Dr. John Lewis. “A simulant may need to reproduce the appearance and spectrum of an asteroid, in any of several wavelength ranges. It may need to replicate the mineralogy and possibly the volatiles content to test related instrumentation. Creating accurate and standardized simulants is a vital step in ensuring the consistency of scientific data in the testing of in-space harvesting and processing technologies.”
Deep Space Industries will complete the first phase of the SBIR by the end of the year, and the NIAC by early 2016, in conjunction with ongoing spacecraft development projects.
“This partnership is symbolic of the agency’s commitment to working with state-of-the-art companies to develop an economic return on the US tax payers’ investment in space research and exploration,” concluded Tumlinson. “NASA is showing great foresight by investing in projects that will enable the private sector to harvest and utilize space resources.”
For more information on Deep Space Industries, including our long term resource utilization strategy and our currently available commercial technologies, please visit DeepSpaceIndustries.com.