In situ resource utilization

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ISRU reverse water gas shift testbed (NASA KSC)

In space exploration, in situ resource utilization (ISRU) describes the proposed use of resources found or manufactured on other astronomical objects (the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.) to further the goals of a space mission.

According to NASA, "in-situ resource utilization will enable the affordable establishment of extraterrestrial exploration and operations by minimizing the materials carried from Earth."[1]

ISRU can provide materials for life support, propellants, construction materials, and energy to a science payload or a crew deployed on a planet, moon, or asteroid.

It is now very common for spacecraft to harness the solar radiation found in situ, and it is likely missions to planetary surfaces will also use solar power. Beyond that, ISRU has not yet received any practical application, but it is seen by exploration proponents as a way to drastically reduce the amount of payload that must be launched from Earth in order to explore a given planetary body.

Proposals have been made for "mining" atmospheric gases for rocket propulsion, using what is called a Propulsive Fluid Accumulator.


Solar cell production[edit]

It has long been suggested that solar cells could be produced from the materials present on the lunar surface. In its original form, known as the solar power satellite, the proposal was intended as an alternate power source for Earth. Solar cells would be shipped to Earth orbit and assembled, the power being transmitted to Earth via microwave beams.[2] Despite much work on the cost of such a venture, the uncertainty lay in the cost and complexity of fabrication procedures on the lunar surface. A more modest reincarnation of this dream is for it to create solar cells to power future lunar bases. One particular proposal is to simplify the process by using fluorine brought from Earth as potassium fluoride to separate the raw materials from the lunar rocks.[3]

Rocket propellant[edit]

Rocket propellant from water ice has also been proposed for the Moon, mainly from ice that has been found at the poles. The likely difficulties include working at extremely low temperatures and extraction from the regolith. Most schemes electrolyse the water and form hydrogen and oxygen and liquify and cryogenically store them. This requires large amounts of equipment and power to achieve. Alternatively it is possible to simply heat the water in a nuclear or solar thermal rocket,[4] which seems to give very much more mass delivered to low Earth orbit (LEO) in spite of the much lower specific impulse, for a given amount of equipment.[5]

The monopropellant hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) can be made from water on Mars and the Moon.[6]

Aluminium as well as other metals have been proposed for use as rocket propellant made using lunar resources,[7] and proposals include reacting the aluminium with water.[8]

The spacecraft could use the propellant itself or supply a propellant depot.

Oxygen to breathe and water to drink[edit]

Water ice could replenish a space ship's water tanks. Water is needed for drinking and hygiene, but may also be used for radiation protection in deep space (living quarters inside a double-walled cylindrical water tank). Splitting water allows the creation of rocket propellant, but can also liberate oxygen that could be used to replenish the atmosphere in a closed-loop recycling system.

Metals for construction or return to Earth[edit]

Asteroid mining could also involve extraction of metals for construction material in space, which may be more cost-effective than bringing such material up out of Earth's deep gravity well, or that of any other large body like the Moon or Mars. Metallic asteroids contain huge amounts of siderophilic metals, including precious metals.



See also: Robert Zubrin

ISRU research for Mars is focused primarily on providing rocket propellant for a return trip to Earth — either for a manned or a sample return mission — or for use as fuel on Mars. Many of the proposed techniques utilize the well-characterised atmosphere of Mars as feedstock. Since this can be easily simulated on Earth, these proposals are relatively simple to implement, though it is by no means certain that NASA or the ESA will favour this approach over a more conventional direct mission.[9]

A typical proposal for ISRU is the use of a Sabatier reaction, CO2 + 4H2 → CH4 + 2H2O, in order to produce methane on the Martian surface, to be used as a propellant. Oxygen is liberated from the water by electrolysis, and the hydrogen recycled back into the Sabatier reaction. The usefulness of this reaction is that only the hydrogen (which is light) need be brought from Earth.[10]

A similar reaction proposed for Mars is the reverse water gas shift reaction, CO2 + H2 → CO + H2O. This reaction takes place rapidly in the presence of an iron-chrome catalyst at 400 Celsius,[11] and has been implemented in an Earth-based testbed by NASA.[12] Again, oxygen is recycled from the water by electrolysis, and the reaction only needs a small amount of hydrogen from Earth. The net result of this reaction is the production of oxygen, to be used as the oxidizer component of rocket fuel.

Another reaction proposed for the production of oxygen and fuel[13] is the electrolysis of the atmospheric carbon dioxide, 2CO2 (+ energy) → 2CO + O2.[14]

Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander MIP (Mars ISPP Precursor) was to demonstrate manufacture of oxygen from the atmosphere of Mars,[15] and test solar cell technologies and methods of mitigating the effect of Martian dust on the power systems.[16] The proposed Mars 2020 rover mission might include ISRU technology demonstrator that would extract CO2 from the atmosphere and produce O2 for rocket fuel.[17]

It has been suggested that buildings on Mars could be made from Basalt as it has good insulating properties. An underground structure of this type would be able to protect life forms against radiation exposure.[18]

All of the resources required to make plastics exist on Mars.[19][20] Many of these complex reactions are able to be completed from the gases harvested from the martian atmosphere. Traces of free oxygen, carbon monoxide, water and methane are all known to exist.[21][22] Hydrogen and oxygen can be made by the electrolysis of water, carbon monoxide and oxygen by the electrolysis of carbon dioxide and methane by the sabatier reaction of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. These basic reactions provide the building blocks for more complex reaction series which are able to make plastics. Ethylene is used to make plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene and can be made from carbon monoxide and hydrogen,[23] 2CO + 4H2 → C2H4 + 2H2O.

The Moon[edit]

Footprint in lunar regolith.

On the Moon, the lunar highland material anorthite is similar to the Earth mineral bauxite, which is an aluminium ore. Smelters can produce pure aluminum, calcium metal, oxygen and silica glass from anorthite. Raw anorthite is also good for making fiberglass and other glass and ceramic products.[24]

Over twenty different methods have been proposed for oxygen extraction on the Moon.[7] Oxygen is often found in iron rich lunar minerals and glasses as iron oxide. The oxygen can be extracted by heating the material to temperatures above 900 °C and exposing it to hydrogen gas. The basic equation is: FeO + H2 → Fe + H2O. This process has recently been made much more practical by the discovery of significant amounts of hydrogen-containing regolith near the Moon's poles by the Clementine spacecraft.[25]

Lunar materials may also be valuable for other uses. It has also been proposed to use lunar regolith as a general construction material,[26] through processing techniques such as sintering, hot-pressing, liquification, and the cast basalt method. Cast basalt is used on Earth for construction of, for example, pipes where a high resistance to abrasion is required. Cast basalt has a very high hardness of 8 Mohs (diamond is 10 Mohs) but is also susceptible to mechanical impact and thermal shock[27] which could be a problem on the Moon.

Glass and glass fibre are straightforward to process on the Moon and Mars, and it has been argued that the glass is optically superior to that made on the Earth because it can be made anhydrous.[24] Successful tests have been performed on Earth using two lunar regolith simulants MLS-1 and MLS-2.[28] Basalt fibre has also been made from lunar regolith simulators.

In August 2005, NASA contracted for the production of 16 tonnes of simulated lunar soil, or "Lunar Regolith Simulant Material."[29] This material, called JSC-1a, is now commercially available for research on how lunar soil could be utilized in situ.[30]

Martian Moons, Ceres, asteroids[edit]

Other proposals[31] are based on Phobos and Deimos. These moons are in reasonably high orbits above Mars, have very low escape velocities, and unlike Mars have return delta-v's from their surfaces to LEO which are less than the return from the Moon.

Ceres is further out than Mars, with a higher delta-v, but launch windows and travel times are better, and the surface gravity is just 0.028 g, with a very low escape velocity of 510 m/s. Researchers have speculated that the interior configuration of Ceres includes a water-ice-rich mantle over a rocky core.[32]

Near Earth Asteroids and bodies in the asteroid belt could also be sources of raw materials for ISRU.

Low orbit[edit]

Gases like oxygen and argon could be extracted from the atmosphere of planets like the Earth and Mars by Propulsive Fluid Accumulator satellites in low orbit.[citation needed]

ISRU classification[edit]

In October 2004, NASA’s Advanced Planning and Integration Office commissioned an ISRU capability roadmap team. The team's report, along with those of 14 other capability roadmap teams, were published May 22, 2005.[33] The report identifies seven ISRU capabilities: (i) resource extraction, (ii) material handling and transport, (iii) resource processing, (iv) surface manufacturing with in situ resources, (v) surface construction, (vi) surface ISRU product and consumable storage and distribution, and (vii) ISRU unique development and certification capabilities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "In-Situ Resource Utilization". NASA Ames Research Center. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  2. ^ "Lunar Solar Power System for Energy Prosperity Within the 21st Century". World Energy Council. Retrieved 2007-03-26. 
  3. ^ Landis, Geoffrey. "Refining Lunar Materials for Solar Array Production on the Moon" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved 2007-03-26. 
  4. ^ LSP water truck. Retrieved on 2014-06-11.
  5. ^ steam rocket factor 1000. Retrieved on 2014-06-11.
  6. ^ "Chapter 6: Viking and the Resources of Mars (from a history of NASA)" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  7. ^ a b Hepp, Aloysius F.; Linne, Diane L.; Groth, Mary F.; Landis, Geoffrey A.; Colvin, James E. (1994). "Production and use of metals and oxygen for lunar propulsion". AIAA Journal of Propulsion and Power 10 (16,): 834–840. doi:10.2514/3.51397. Retrieved 2009-12-09. 
  8. ^ Page, Lewis (August 24, 2009). "New NASA rocket fuel 'could be made on Moon, Mars'". The Register. 
  9. ^ "Mars Sample Return". Retrieved 2008-02-05. 
  10. ^ "Sizing of a Combined Sabatier Reaction and Water Electrolysis Plant for Use in In-Situ Resource Utilization on Mars". Retrieved 2008-02-05. 
  11. ^ "The Reverse Water Gas Shift". Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  12. ^ "Mars In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Testbed". NASA. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Kaplan, D. et al., THE MARS IN-SITU-PROPELLANT-PRODUCTION PRECURSOR (MIP) FLIGHT DEMONSTRATION, paper presented at Mars 2001: Integrated Science in Preparation for Sample Return and Human Exploration, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Oct. 2–4 1999, Houston, TX.
  16. ^ Landis, G. A.; Jenkins, P.; Scheiman, D. and Baraona, C. "MATE and DART: An Instrument Package for Characterizing Solar Energy and Atmospheric Dust on Mars", presented at Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration, July 18–20, 2000, Houston, Texas.
  17. ^ Klotz, Irene (21 November 2013). "Mars 2020 Rover To Include Test Device To Tap Planet’s Atmosphere for Oxygen". Space News. Retrieved 2013-11-22. 
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ a b "Mining and Manufacturing on the Moon". NASA. Archived from the original on 2006-12-06. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  25. ^ Nozette, S.; Lichtenberg, C. L.; Spudis, P.; Bonner, R.; Ort, W.; Malaret, E.; Robinson, M.; Shoemaker, E. M. (November 1996). "The Clementine Bistatic Radar Experiment". Science 274 (5292): 1495–1498. Bibcode:1996Sci...274.1495N. doi:10.1126/science.274.5292.1495. PMID 8929403. 
  26. ^ "Indigenous lunar construction materials". AIAA PAPER 91-3481. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  27. ^ "Cast Basalt" (PDF). Ultratech. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  28. ^ Tucker, Dennis S.; Ethridge, Edwin C. (May 11, 1998). Processing Glass Fiber from Moon/Mars Resources. Proceedings of American Society of Civil Engineers Conference, 26–30 April 1998. Albuquerque, NM; United States. 19990104338. 
  29. ^ "NASA Science & Mission Systems Office". Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  30. ^ "bringing commercialization to maturity". PLANET LLC. Archived from the original on 2007-01-10. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  31. ^ Anthony Zuppero and Geoffrey A. Landis, "Mass budget for mining the moons of Mars," Resources of Near-Earth Space, University of Arizona, 1991 (abstract here [1] or here [2])
  32. ^ Thomas, P.C; Parker J.Wm.; McFadden, L.A. et al. (2005). "Differentiation of the asteroid Ceres as revealed by its shape". Nature 437 (7056): 224–226. Bibcode:2005Natur.437..224T. doi:10.1038/nature03938. PMID 16148926. 
  33. ^ "NASA Capability Roadmaps Executive Summary". NASA. pp. 264 ff. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Resource Utilization Concepts for MoonMars; ByIris Fleischer, Olivia Haider, Morten W. Hansen, Robert Peckyno, Daniel Rosenberg and Robert E. Guinness; 30 September 2003; IAC Bremen, 2003 (29 Sept – 03 Oct 2003) and MoonMars Workshop (26–28 Sept 2003, Bremen). Accessed on 18 January 2010

External links[edit]