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NASA plans for 'Earth-independent' space exploration

To support the next several decades of space exploration, NASA is looking for technologies that will reduce its reliance on Earth-bound resources and eventually adopt an Earth-independent approach to space exploration.

According to the space agency, launching one pound of any material into space costs thousands of dollars. And with a gallon of water weighing more than eight pounds, generating water, air and fuel in space is critical for future deep-space missions.

To support sustainable and affordable space transportation and surface operations, NASA said it will soliciting ideas and technologies to advance In Situ Resource Utilization capabilities, which involves collecting and converting local resources into products that can reduce missions' cost and risk and "lead to independence from Earth that would be required for more sustained human presence in deep space."

NASA wants research proposals for processes, components or subsystems that turn in-situ resources into water, oxygen and fuel, leveraging commercial space or terrestrial activities.

The space agency said it has been working on ISRU components for several decades, but many of the technologies are either not mature enough to support sustained human exploration or have not been used in long-duration missions.  

Current research includes a project to build a reactor that could pull carbon dioxide out of the Martian atmosphere and combine it with hydrogen extracted from underground water to create methane and oxygen that can be used for propellants.  Another project aims to remove dust from the machines that process atmospheric gases into breathable air, water and fuel. NASA’s Resource Prospector mission  would locate and excavate hydrogen, oxygen and water from the moon.

The agency, which the announcement said "supports public-private partnerships for achieving its strategic goals and objectives," intends to require minimum cost-sharing thresholds and/or matching for the proposed research.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA from West Chester University and an MA in English from the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at smiller@gcn.com or @sjaymiller.

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