NASA Selects 3 ISRU Projects for SBIR Funding

CubeRover on the moon (Credit: Astrobotic)

NASA has selected three proposed focused on a miniaturized lunar rover and extraction of CO2 from the martian atmosphere under the space agency’s Small Business Research Innovation (SBIR) Phase II program.

Astrobotic, Air Squared and TDA Research were selected for two-year contracts worth up to $750,000 apiece to pursue projects focused on the moon and Mars. Each company previously received funding for its in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) project under the first phase of the SBIR program.

Astrobotic received a nod to continue development on its CubeRover, which at 2 kg (4.4 lb) would be the smallest rover ever placed on the lunar surface.

“The rover is based on a highly-integrated single board computer (rover-on-a-board) with reliable flight software, has integrated lander stowage and deployment capability, and uses WiFi for teleoperation and shared computation between rover and lander,” the company said in its proposal.

The low-cost mini-rovers will provide an excellent platform for technology demonstration missions, the company said.

“Specific technologies that might be tested include rover batteries that could withstand high temperatures, space computing, novel materials or sensors, motors, power systems, or dust mitigating technologies,” the proposal stated.

“Additionally, small rovers will allow engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists to test novel, exciting, and high-risk concepts of operations,” the document added. “CubeRovers will be the first to demonstrate recharging from a centralized power source in a regolith environment, repair of surface assets, and establish a local communication infrastructure network.”

Astrobotic aims to develop, test and deliver a flight-ready CubeRover by the end of the SBIR Phase II contract in 2020.

Air Squared’s project is focused on collecting and pressurizing CO2 from the martian atmosphere to support for eventual oxygen production by use of solid oxide electrolysis.

“The proposed innovation is a Martian Atmosphere Scroll Compressor (MASC),” the company said in its proposal. “Dealing with the low pressures of the Martian atmosphere, the MASC functions like a vacuum pump utilizing Air Squared scroll compressor technology….

“Scaled up, the MASC would apply to storage and utilization of CO2 on future Mars missions to supply the raw materials for oxygen and fuel production,” the proposal added. “Scaled down, the MASC could be integrated onboard NASA’s crewed spacecraft to collect and analyze atmospheric particulate to monitor the safety of the astronauts on board.

“Additionally, the MASC could fulfill the atmospheric monitoring and safety needs on board the ISS by collecting CO2 and other toxins and regulating the breathable environment,” the proposal stated.

TDA Research is also focused on CO2 extraction on Mars.

“TDA Research Inc. proposes to develop a compact, lightweight, advanced sorbent-based compressor to recover high-pressure, high purity CO2 from the Martian atmosphere,” the proposal said.

“The system eliminates the need for a mechanical pump, increasing the reliability with relatively low power consumption. TDA’s system uses a new, high capacity sorbent that selectively adsorbs CO2 at 0.1 psia and regenerates by temperature swing, producing a continuous, high purity CO2 flow at pressure (> 15 psia),” the proposal added.

Summaries of the three proposals follow.

CubeRover for Lunar Science and Exploration
Subtopic: Lunar Resources

Astrobotic Technology, Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Andrew De Salle Horchler

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

CubeRover is a robust miniaturized rover for built for lunar science and exploration. With its 2-kg mass, the robot would be the smallest (and likely the least costly) planetary rover ever deployed. CubeRover’s mobility, power and sensing enable 0.5 km traverses, or greater, even over challenging lunar terrain.

The rover is based on a highly-integrated single board computer (rover-on-a-board) with reliable flight software, has integrated lander stowage and deployment capability, and uses WiFi for teleoperation and shared computation between rover and lander.

The system incorporates a flexible thermal design and includes mass and power allocation for small science instruments, opening up a range of novel applications, landing sites, and mission concepts. Finally, the design offers an approach toward standardization and commercialization of CubeRover parts and designs.

This proposal describes a detailed plan for the development, testing, and delivery of flight hardware by the end of the contract in 2020. Phase II work will mature the Phase I design and retire risks in pursuit of developing and delivering a flight-ready CubeRover.

The proposed program consists of five technical objectives that address the key challenges of small size and mass, the harsh lunar environment, and broad applicability and flexibility for future missions and payloads. Work will mature subsystems to develop the final flight configuration to environmental specifications, build flight hardware, and perform qualification and acceptance testing.

The key artifacts that will result include: a flight-qualified version of the single board computer, several prototype rovers for testing, and a flight-qualified CubeRover that can survive the trip to the Moon and perform its mission.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

CubeRover is designed for robustness and could be infused into any NASA mission to the Moon. To date, the team has identified six Lunar SKGs that could be studied using CubeRover and small, relevant scientific instruments with a clear path to flight.

Due to its relatively low deployment and development cost, CubeRovers will be excellent platforms for technology demonstration missions. Specific technologies that might be tested include rover batteries that could withstand high temperatures, space computing, novel materials or sensors, motors, power systems, or dust mitigating technologies.

CubeRover will allow developers an affordable route through which to increase the Technology Readiness Level of their technology, and lower a barrier to technology development (and, while these technologies will be demonstrated on CubeRovers, the components that are validated and developed are likely to be relevant to rovers of all sizes).

Additionally, small rovers will allow engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists to test novel, exciting, and high-risk concepts of operations. CubeRovers will be the first to demonstrate recharging from a centralized power source in a regolith environment, repair of surface assets, and establish a local communication infrastructure network.

Demonstrating these concepts will be critical to enabling the establishment of long-term habitats on the Moon, but they are neither relevant nor economically feasible for investigation with a larger rover.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Astrobotic intends to commercialize CubeRover to allow entrepreneurs to develop tools and components for the platform. The hope is that the release of a standard will lead to increased development interest and investment in affordable, compatible parts for CubeRovers in the same way that CubeSats drove industry to centralize around common standards and components.

The goal, long term, is that these rovers are well suited to technology demonstrations and a range of commercial endeavors on the lunar surface, including lunar volatiles prospecting, habitat building, monitoring and repair, and the establishment of local infrastructure (such as communication relay).

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing
  • Lifetime Testing
  • Mission Training
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Telemetry/Tracking (Cooperative/Noncooperative; see also
  • Planetary Navigation, Tracking, & Telemetry)
  • Teleoperation

High Capacity Multi-Stage Scroll Compressor for Mars Atmosphere Acquisition
Subtopic: Mars Atmosphere Acquisition, Separation, and Conditioning for ISRU

Air Squared, Inc.
Broomfield, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
John Wilson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 5
End: 7

Technical Abstract

The proposed innovation supports technologies for In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) processes by collecting and pressurizing gasses from the Mars atmosphere for eventual oxygen production by use of Solid Oxide Electrolysis (SOXE).

There are several ways to capture and pressurize CO2, including freezing at cryogenic temperatures, mechanical compression, and absorption. Completed studies on each approach, have generally favored cryogenic temperature and mechanical compression solutions. Recently, mechanical compression has gained momentum through the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), which utilizes an Air Squared compressor for mechanical compression of CO2.

If this approach is pursued further for a larger system, there are still several questions concerning reliability over 10,000 hours of autonomous operation in Mars environment and scalability. Air Squared plans on addressing these issues as part of Phase II.

The proposed innovation is a Martian Atmosphere Scroll Compressor (MASC). Dealing with the low pressures of the Martian atmosphere, the MASC functions like a vacuum pump utilizing Air Squared scroll compressor technology.

During Phase I, Air Squared tested several orbiting and spinning scroll prototypes on CO2 at a wide range of discharge pressures and superior efficiency was demonstrated with lower discharge pressures. Parallel efforts by NASA-JPL on MOXIE, showed no performance degradation of the SOXE at reduced pressures down to 4.4 PSIA.

Additionally, reducing the cathode pressure provides more margin against starting to electrolyze CO. For this reason, Air Squared has decided to focus exclusively on collection-only in an attempt to concentrate efforts on a lightweight and efficient MASC, supporting oxygen generation.

The following proposed Phase II work will further develop both a spinning and orbiting scroll MASC for providing 2.7 kg/hr of CO2 at discharge pressures between 4.4 and 15 PSIA.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

To meet NASA’s ambitious goal of human exploration of Mars, the MASC provides in-situ resource utilization for the production of oxygen and fuel derived from the CO2 rich Martian atmosphere. Designed to minimize size, weight, and power requirements without compromising efficiency, the MASC is applicable to NASA’s many atmospheric collection and monitoring demands.

Engineered for the collection of CO2 for the Mar Rover 2020 mission, the MASC is a next-generation evolution of Air Squared’s successful MOXIE scroll compressor, re-imagined for human exploration of space. Scaled up, the MASC would apply to storage and utilization of CO2 on future Mars missions to supply the raw materials for oxygen and fuel production.

Scaled down, the MASC could be integrated onboard NASA’s crewed spacecraft to collect and analyze atmospheric particulate to monitor the safety of the astronauts on board. Additionally, the MASC could fulfill the atmospheric monitoring and safety needs on board the ISS by collecting CO2 and other toxins and regulating the breathable environment.

Via a low power, compact, and reliable design, the MASC could reduce space transit fuel costs for Mars exploration crews by supplying them with oxygen and fuel for the journey back home.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Where size, weight, and power are at a premium, the MASC excels, making it a perfect fit for military and commercial aerospace markets. The MASC could replace state of the art air compressors in On-Board Oxygen Generation Systems (OBOGS) which recycles cabin atmosphere in military aircraft, eliminating the need for heavy and tightly temperature controlled liquid oxygen tanks, thereby extending mission lengths and increasing pilot performance.

Air Squared has an existing partnership with Cobham Manufacturing to produce scroll air compressors in their OBOGSs and once testing is completed, the MASC would be a next-generation upgrade for military aircraft. A spinning scroll compressor design, like the MASC, would minimize space and weight needs while maintaining versatile compatibility with several different military aircraft.

Integrated as an air compressor for aviation potable water systems, the MASC could provide more efficient, lighter, and smaller solution to the commercial air transportation industry. The MASC could reach a market already established in Air Squared’s partnership with Airbus to retrofit their current potable water system.

The adaptive MASC would solve previous reliability issues through its less complex spinning scroll design. If successful, the spinning scroll MASC will provide a pathway for tailoring the technology to the additional compressor and vacuum pump applications in the commercial aerospace industry.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Machines/Mechanical Subsystems
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems

ISRU CO2 Recovery
Subtopic: Mars Atmosphere Acquisition, Separation, and Conditioning for ISRU

TDA Research, Inc.
Wheat Ridge, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Gokhan Alptekin Ph.D.

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Human exploration of Mars and unmanned sample return missions can benefit greatly from the resources available on Mars. The first major step of any Mars in-situ propellant production system is the acquisition of carbon dioxide and its compression for further processing.

TDA Research Inc. proposes to develop a compact, lightweight, advanced sorbent-based compressor to recover high-pressure, high purity CO2 from the Martian atmosphere. The system eliminates the need for a mechanical pump, increasing the reliability with relatively low power consumption. TDA’s system uses a new, high capacity sorbent that selectively adsorbs CO2 at 0.1 psia and regenerates by temperature swing, producing a continuous, high purity CO2 flow at pressure (> 15 psia).

In the Phase I work, we successfully completed bench-scale proof-of-concept demonstrations, elevating the TRL to 3. In Phase II, we will further optimize the sorbent and scale-up its production using advanced manufacturing techniques such as continuous microwave synthesis. We will carry out multiple adsorption/desorption cycles to demonstrate the sorbent’s cycle life.

Finally, we will design and fabricate a sub-scale prototype to fully demonstrate the technology under simulated Martian atmospheres (TRL-5); this unit will be sent to NASA for further testing and evaluation.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The main attraction of our research to NASA is its ability to provide a lightweight, compact and energy efficient adsorbent based solid-state CO2 compressor system to collect and pressurize CO2 from the Martian atmosphere. The sorbent developed will also find application as a CO2 control system for commercial space craft cabin air revitalization and space suit.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The sorbent developed in this project could potentially find use in a large commercial market in the removal of CO2 emissions from the coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. If regulations are put in place this market could develop in to billions of dollar. It is also applicable to CO2 removal from biogas, natural gas, and the water-gas-shift reaction in hydrogen manufacturing.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Resource Extraction

  • MoonROx is out, MoonCO2 is in? Does this mean we know the MoonROx approach wasn’t viable? Is MoonCO2?

  • P.K. Sink

    I really like these SBIR grants. When Elon gets to Mars he’s gonna need this kinda tech to start building his city. Go NASA.