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Advanced Exploration Systems Division

Resource Prospector Project (RP)

Canceled Technology Project

Project Introduction

Resource Prospector (RP) was an in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) capability demonstration activity developed to support future human exploration. 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 – Resource Prospector was designed to answer key questions about polar volatiles, a critical resource.

Planned for launch in 2022, RP was intended as a first effort to validate prospecting, extraction, and analysis of planetary surface resources for the express purpose of resource utilization.  RP would 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 would characterize the distribution of water and other volatiles at the lunar poles, enabling future innovative uses of local resources. The knowledge gained by RP would 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 have been able to determine if lunar resources can be harvested to support future deep space missions. Resource Prospector was designed to prospect the lunar surface, create maps of the nature and distribution of volatiles, and then demonstrate processing while on the lunar surface.

Resource Prospector consisted 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 was designed to 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 would 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 was designed to be able to travel over the lunar surface. In RP’s concept of operations, as surface operations began, continuous observations from the neutron spectrometer would provide bulk hydrogen understanding down to 1m depth while the NIR spectrometer provided surface hydration and minerology. Finally, the rover would move into permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) - where the greatest volatiles concentrations are located – and the RP payload subsystems would capture volatiles from the lunar regolith to process and characterize the essential elements.

Depending on landing site, RP's operations were planned to last a minimum of seven days but could be extended to four weeks or more with continued advancements in site selection and traverse planning. At the time of project cancellation, Resource Prospector was in Phase-A development, and was focused on 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. The RP Team 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 Resource Prospector activity was cancelled in June 2018.

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