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Center Innovation Fund: KSC CIF

Asteroid and Lava Tube In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Prospecting Free Flyer (ALTIP Free Flyer)

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

This project seeks to develop a small free flyer that can be used to safely and effectively prospect on an Asteroid while being controlled by the crew. This will enable the characterization of the Asteroid for the In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Lava tubes can be explored remotely from the outside.

Asteroids can contain vast amounts of resources such as water for propellants and metals for feed stocks. Lava Tubes on Mars and the Moon may contain frozen volatile resources. Before the resources can be used, they must be found with a prospecting method. 

The NASA Agency Asteroid Grand Challenge seeks new ideas for Asteroid retrieval mission technologies for exploration and utilization of asteroids in a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO).

This project will develop a small free flying platform that can be used to safely and effectively prospect on an Asteroid with limited autonomy while being controlled by the crew. This will enable the characterization of the Asteroid for ISRU.  Lava tubes can be explored remotely from the outside as well using this same technology.

A small free flyer or even multiple small free flyers are a low risk solution for prospecting and sampling an asteroid, or other Near Earth Objects (e.g. Comets).  An evolved application is flying into Mars and lunar lava tubes to look for resources, map the sub surface cavities and acquire samples. Instead of risking a highly expensive main spacecraft bus in a rendezvous asteroid landing, the small free flyer can be used as a secondary spacecraft. The Rosetta mission recently demonstrated how difficult it is to autonomously land on a small body.  A small free flyer would have less inertia and be easier to control.  The trend in modern spaceflight is towards miniaturization, as electronics and other components shrink in size and mass. The small size also has advantages in terms of maneuverability and access.  Multiple small free flyers could provide redundancy and increase mission success probabilities, since an anomaly could be quickly corrected through the use of a second small free flyer.

By prospecting and sampling multiple locations on an Asteroid or lava tube, then geologic mapping and resource characterization is enabled.  The crew can control such free flyers with tele-operation without risking direct contact with an extremely dusty or hard to access surface locations. The first step in ISRU is prospecting and characterization of the accessible resources and this will lead to massive risk reduction for actual ISRU in follow- on missions.

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