The MGMR facility developed under this effort will address both fundamental science and technology development need of NASA and its commercial partners. There is no terrestrial research facility that can study aggregation of millimeter-scale agglomerates or particles, a fundamental process in the formation of planetesimals and a process that must be understood for future NASA and commercial applications such as asteroid ISRU and air circulation and filtering in long life deep space environmental control systems. Also, no terrestrial test facility exists that can test low-velocity, low-density-gas pneumatic transport concepts suitable for movement of regolith and other granular solids on asteroids or in processing facilities on the moons of Mars. Such equipment might be very beneficial for ISRU applications; however, such equipment will not be considered for deep space missions if we do not know enough about potential failure mechanisms, or about design parameter space to design and construct robust micro-g pneumatic transport systems. The proposed facility will allow appropriate science and engineering tests to be conducted in a readily accessible location and in an appropriate environment. In addition this facility will be well suited as a test environment for third party commercial use on ISS supporting NASA contracts.
Commercial space mining is a rapidly ascending industry. Large companies such as Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are investing in this area and a $200M commercial venture fund has been established for this industry simulating the creation of several rapidly growing small companies. TransAstra Corporation is part of this new resource-recovery industry, which also includes companies such as Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, Moon Express, and Shakleton Energy. These companies anticipate excavating, transporting and processing large quantities of regolith to recover water and other volatiles and to process the minerals for fabrication of radiation shielding or structures. Such operations will involve transporting, storing and handling large quantities of granular solids under reduced or micro-gravity. Advancement of the understanding of the fundamental behavior of granular materials under reduced gravity conditions and under reduced gas pressures or vacuum conditions will be critical for them in designing their equipment and processes. The industry will have a strong interest in the science and technological developments that can come from a micro-g granular materials research facility. We are confident that our company, and others will want to sponsor purely commercial directed studies using the facility once it is available on the ISS.