NIAC Focus: Harvesting Propellant From Icy Moons

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently selected 13 proposals for Phase I awards. Below is the description of a propellant harvester submitted by Michael VanWoerkom of Exoterra Resource, LLC.

NIMPH: Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester

Michael VanWoerkom
Exoterra Resource, LLC

The latest Decadal Survey lists multiple sample return missions to the Moon, Mars and Jovian moons as high priority goals. In particular, a mission to Jupiter’s Europa is a top science goal as its liquid oceans holds the potential for discovery of extra-terrestrial life. However, using traditional techniques, these delta-V intensive missions result in large initial masses and have cost estimates in the $1-5B range.

To reduce the cost of these missions, ExoTerra taps into both the rapidly developing CubeSat industry, in-situ resource utilization, and the work being performed with high power solar arrays and electric propulsion under the asteroid redirect program. Combined, these offer the ability to drastically reduce the initial mass and cost of sample return missions.

ExoTerra’s NIMPH project develops a CubeSat scale in-situ resource utilization system that harvests water to enable low-cost sample return missions to icy moons through micro-landers. To exemplify the enabling capabilities of the technology, the project demonstrates the ability to conduct a sample return mission from Europa at an order of magnitude cost reduction.

During the effort, we develop the mission architecture and concept of operations, identifying key risks and mitigations. The project then performs the conceptual design of the key ISRU and micro-thruster technologies. Finally, the results of the design are fed into the conceptual design of the micro-lander used to collect and deliver the sample. Once the micro-lander and ISRU technologies are demonstrated, it offers the potential to perform sample return missions across the solar system at an affordable price.