NASA plans to return to the moon in the next decade, and it will not be for a quick visit this time. The agency wants to establish a long-term human presence on and in the space around the the moonbut that will require new technologies. NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program aims to develop these technologies. Two NAIC projects have just moved on to Phase III, the most advanced they have ever had.
The first phase III proposal comes from Carnegie Mellon University and focuses on creating accurate models of craters on the moon's surface. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has mapped the moon for a decade, but the so-called Skylight mission (above) would use to go further by using high resolution cameras on a rover to create complete 3D models of craters.
NASA believes that such surface models would help determine the craters best suited for robotic and human exploration. This could be essential for finding and exploiting the ice deposits that exist on the moon. Back on Earth, the same technology could perhaps monitor mines and quarries.
The other project is also connected to in situ resource use The Mini Bee concept is a mission focused on "optical mining" that uses solar reflectors to power its mining operations. Based on the work of Californian company TransAstra Corporation, the Mini Bee could demonstrate ways to exploit asteroids to extract water and other volatile substances. An eventual version of the technology would collect the asteroid resources in an air bag before meeting NASA's Gateway Station in lunar orbit.
None of these technologies exist yet in real life. During Phase III development, NASA will award each team up to $ 2 million in grants to refine the designs over a two-year period. At that point, NASA will decide whether to continue development.
This will not be the last projects of NIAC to go forward either. NASA will advance at least one more project to Phase III per year as it moves toward a lunar mission. NASA's Artemis program aims to land on the Moon by 2024 with a human presence in place by 2028. What NASA is learning from Artemis will shed light on its way of planning and putting in place his future missions on Mars.