image: NASA

By 2024, NASA’s Artemis program is scheduled to land a man and a woman on the lunar surface. To assist with long-term sustained presence on the moon in the years ahead, NASA will need to tap resources in-situ rather than rely on supplies from Earth. It turns out, lunar regolith is brimming with life-supporting potential, but harvesting these materials in the harsh lunar environment presents numerous engineering challenges.

On Wednesday, NASA announced that it was seeking innovative strategies to help the agency excavate lunar regolith and subsequently deliver this material to a theoretical regolith processing plant situated on the moon’s south pole. NASA’s Break the Ice Lunar Challenge is currently open for registration to help the space agency develop capabilities to eventually support a sustained human lunar presence by 2030.

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“As outlined in our plan for sustained lunar exploration and development, NASA is pursuing technology development that allows future explorers to live off the land. With this challenge, we’re soliciting fresh ideas from outside the traditional aerospace sector for acquiring and processing resources needed to support long-duration human surface exploration,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate Jim Reuter in a press release.

Overall, Break the Ice Lunar Challenge consists of two phases. As part of Phase 1, NASA is seeking proposals for “a system architecture capable of excavating and moving icy regolith and water on the lunar surface.”

To compete for a share of the Phase 1 $500,000 prize purse, participants will need to submit an excavation plan, a report detailing their system architecture, and a mission animation no later than June 18, 2021. These materials will need to address myriad operational and environmental factors related to a hypothetical lunar excavation mission, per NASA.

Phase 2 exists as a demonstration stage based on “promising” Phase 1 submissions that detail “viable approaches to achieving the challenge goals” with a prize purse of up to $4.5 million, per NASA.

NASA is particularly interested in technologies that utilize lunar resources to enable sustainable surface operations with decreased Earth-supported resupply needs. Such innovations would include converting ice on the moon into drinking water, rocket fuel, and other resources.

As part of the challenge announcement, NASA notes a series of technological gaps associated with harvesting and transporting large amounts of lunar resource on-location; namely designing hardware rugged enough to withstand the extreme temperatures on the moon. Robotic excavation equipment will need to operate in “permanently shadowed regions” at the moon’s south pole where researchers have observed ice.

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“Responsibly gathering these resources on a place far from our home planet will require new technologies,” said John Vickers, the NASA principal technologist for the challenge, in a press release. “Someday we may be able to incentivize regolith excavation and water delivery technologies that could be adapted for operation on the lunar surface, while also advancing excavation technologies for terrestrial commercialization.”