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Current thrust of space exploration

Traditionally, expansion in space has been driven by governments. The International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a grouping of major space agencies, recently published a consensus plan for follow-up space exploration, infrastructure etc. after the ISS in the Global Exploration Roadmap. According to the roadmap, we are entering the second of three phases, focusing on the Moon with up to 50 missions into the 2030s, with the Lunar Gateway station and surface missions. NASA is an international driver, with about 3/4 of all government investment in space exploration. NASA characterizes this “Proving Ground” phase by the Lunar Gateway habitat, Orion spacecraft and SLS launcher, and defines explicit objectives: e.g. Deep Space Operations & Habitation, In-Situ Resource Utilization, and In-Space Propulsion.


Lunar resources ecosystem

A simple illustration of a possible future resources ecosystem is shown in Figure 2. As can be seen at bottom left, several types of vehicles are engaged in (multi-staged) geological exploration. The second phase, recovery, shows vehicles associated with open-pit mining on Earth (providing an incorrect but tangible image). Recovered ore is processed into useful products (e.g. water, oxygen, fuel) in a third stage at a refinery facility, which also has attendant infrastructure needs (here, power is shown). Next, the final product is transported - perhaps to a point of sale directly, e.g. a lunar base. Alternatively it may be launched, and go through another stage of in-space transport. It may be delivered to a facility (e.g a space station) or tug vehicle, before being used to refuel satellites.

Space & lunar resources

Recently, several private firms have proposed visions & plans for lunar ecosystems, often related to resources: e.g. ispace, SpaceX, and ULA. Indeed, the 2009 remote detection of water by India’s Chandrayaan-1 orbiter and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter focused attention on lunar resources. The U.S. Geological Survey is taking first steps to evaluate regolith as reserves. Water may be used for refueling; several companies have begun planning its extraction, and envisioning the novel ecosystem needed. Though these organizations may lack the financial means of space agencies, they bring renewed interest in sustainable, continuous operations, vs. the traditional mission-based mode.

Accordingly, technologies and systems are being prepared, including novel extraction concepts like thermal mining. Demand for resources could come not only from exploration needs, but refueling satellites. A key enabler is on-orbit refueling and servicing, for which commercial services have begun, and which may gain important market share. These developments clearly affect the various plans for lunar resources, which have deep uncertainties. Yet no holistic model of its dynamics at an ecosystem level, characterizing the main uncertainties, is known to the authors.

Another key aspect of establishing more permanent, sustainable space operations is logistics. Indeed, though shifting exploration targets to the Moon considerably complicates space logistics needs, space resource industries promise some relief, at the expense of more logistical complexity. This new sophistication requires research. Such an ecosystem will also potentially have a wider impact on the economy.

What do you think?