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Advanced Exploration Systems Division

Resource Prospector Project (RP)

Active Technology Project

Project Introduction

Resource Prospector (RP) is an in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) capability demonstration activity currently planned for launch to he Moon in 2022. Expanding human presence beyond low-Earth orbit to asteroids and Mars will require the maximum possible utilization of local materials — so-called in-situ resources.

RP will be a first effort to validate prospecting, extraction, and analysis of planetary surface resources for the express purpose of resource utilization.  RP will be able to find water (in the form of ice or hydrated minerals), extract it, process it and store it.  In addition to ISRU validation, RP will be able to characterize the distribution of water and other volatiles at the lunar poles, enabling future innovative uses of local resources. The knowledge gained by RP should also be useful for exploring near-Earth asteroids and Mars, and could reduce the overall risks of human exploration. Through the RP demonstration, NASA may be able to determine if lunar resources can be harvested to support future deep space missions. Resource Prospector is designed to prospect the lunar surface, create maps of the nature and distribution of volatiles, and then demonstrate processing while on the lunar surface.

RP consists of a lunar lander, lunar rover, and five key ISRU elements: two prospecting instruments for locating potentially viable materials, a sample acquisition system (drill & sample transfer system), an oven for heating samples, and a volatile analysis system for determining the volatile composition within samples.  After landing, RP will rove across and map the lunar surface using neutron and near-IR (NIR) spectrometers to look for hydrogen-rich materials. The rover will be capable of entering permanently-shadowed areas, which contain the highest concentrations of volatiles, and use the drill subsystem to bring material from a one-meter depth to examine with the near-IR spectrometer. After high fidelity volatiles are found, the RP drill subsystem will capture samples, transfer them to the OVEN subsystem, and then heat them to 150°C to enable characterization of the essential elements.

In order to prospect for volatiles, RP must be able to travel over the lunar surface. As surface operations begin, continuous observations from the neutron spectrometer, provide bulk hydrogen understanding down to 1m, and the NIR spectrometer, provides surface hydration and minerology. The maps that RP creates of the volatile concentrations can be used for drill site selection and excavation. When the rover moves into permanently shadowed regions (PSR's) - where the greatest volatiles concentrations are located - the RP payload subsystems will capture volatiles from the lunar regolith to process and characterize the essential elements.

Depending on landing site, RP's operations will last a minimum of seven days but could be extended to four weeks or more with continued advancements in site selection and traverse planning. Resource Prospector is in Phase-A development, currently maturing flight planning, requirements, and interfaces definition.

In 2015 the RP team greatly reduced risk and furthered flight design maturity by building "RP15" - a "mission-in-a-year" rover/payload system which was able to rove, drill, and process materials here on Earth, similar to how RP would operate on the moon. In only 12 months, RP15 was conceived, developed, built, tested, and operated as an Earth-terrestrial prototype system. This RP15 terrestrial rover system, which includes an ISRU prototype system, was operated just as it would be during the actual RP lunar mission. RP has continued to mature its mission concept. During 2016 and 2017 the team conducted numerous hardware tests, including conducting analogue testing in the field and in microgravity simulators, as well as environmental chamber testing. The team continues to develop new tools and data sets for traverse planning.

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