The proposed work will support NASA's plans for human exploration by providing mission consumables and propellant for all missions of the Evolvable Mars Campaign including: human exploration missions to Lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit (LDRO), human exploration missions to near Earth asteroids in their native orbits, exploration of the Moon, and exploration of Mars. Completion of the proposed work demonstrating the physics and chemistry of optical mining will enable NASA to fly the extremely exciting "Apis" mission. Requiring only a modest-sized spacecraft launched to a low positive C3 compatible with a single Falcon 9 rocket, Apis is capable of providing NASA with propellant and mission consumables in cis-lunar space. The proposed SBIR work will demonstrate a key aspect of the Apis mission, namely the process of "Optical Mining" to excavate asteroid surfaces by ablation, drive water from the ablated materials, collect the evolved water as ice in cold storage bags, and return up to 100MT (metric tonnes) of water to LDRO or other depot location. Optical mining could also be used to extract the volatile materials from the target of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and convert that material to consumables and propellant in cis-lunar space to support human exploration.
The proposed work is designed to create an industrial revolution in space in which propellant and other consumables for commercial processes in space are supplied from near Earth asteroids instead of from the surface of the Earth. Our mission system studies show that such propellant, if minded from highly-accessible Near Earth Objects (NEOs) can be used to supply propellant for reusable solar thermal orbit transfer vehicles that fly on recirculating routes between LEO, GEO, and a propellant depot in LDRO. These reusable solar thermal OTVs, which we call Worker Bees, more than double the effective throw capability of launch vehicles by eliminating the need for high energy upper stages and allowing rockets to launch their payloads to LEO instead of to high-energy transfer orbits. The proposed Phase 1 SBIR will perform a critical proof of concept that enables this vision, creates a commercial market in space for asteroid mining products, and allows the development of commercial OTVs supplied from asteroid ISRU.