While there have been some NASA experiments with ISRU, such as this test in Hawaii in 2008, there may be a greater role for the private sector to play in developing and demonstrating these technologies.
(credit: NASA)

The need for private ISRU development

by Eric Shear
Monday, October 29, 2012

With the success of SpaceX’s recent launches and Planetary Resources’s announcement, we are not far from breaking out into the inner solar system. Private companies have been developing the rockets and related technologies needed to travel into space, but relatively little work has been done on in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). This is not to denigrate what has already been researched, but ISRU technology largely exists on paper with few actual prototypes.

Depending on the nature of the mission, ISRU will enable or expand many activities off Earth. For instance, current closed-cycle life support systems can recycle 90% of the water and oxygen that astronauts need to survive, which is good enough for LEO but not for bases on the Moon. The picture is somewhat different on Mars, where oxygen and water can be procured from the local environment with much less energy than on the Moon. This is because lunar regolith consists of oxygen tightly bound to metals and silicon, while oxygen exists in looser carbon and hydrogen bonds on Mars.

Achieving closure greater than 90% for future life support systems will increase the mission’s power requirements, because of pumpdown efficiencies in airlocks. ISRU offers a way to make up the 10% of water and air that will be lost from the habitat on Mars without increasing the power requirements significantly. Additionally, ISRU can be a source of rocket propellant, plastics, and metals that would otherwise have to be imported from Earth. In that sense, it is no different from early Earth explorers living off the land.

Strangely enough, the latest NASA Design Reference Missions (DRMs) for Mars made little to no reference to ISRU. Given the reasons above, it would seem obvious to incorporate ISRU into human mission plans. There is an opportunity for commercial firms to demonstrate the viability of various ISRU processes and thus accelerate the expansion into the inner solar system by convincing mission planners to incorporate ISRU.

Read more: The Space Review: The need for private ISRU development.

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