NASA Awards Intuitive Machines Millions to Excavate and Research Water on the Moon

Intuitive Machines of Houston has just won a NASA award of almost $47 million to deliver mining equipment to the Moon by December 2022. The mission, named PRIME-1, includes a drill and a mass spectrometer that will help the agency search for and collect ice within the deep terrain of the moon’s South Pole.

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Image courtesy of Nicolas Thomas.

NASA has awarded Intuitive Machines as one of its vendors for landing payloads on the lunar surface. The company believes that autonomous systems have the potential to affect every aspect of life and provides robust, available, reliable, and safe solutions for spaceflight.

Along with other experiments that will be carried out on the moon using relevant technologies, research from PRIME-1 will help drive advancement and provide knowledge for Artemis missions and its astronauts so a “sustainable lunar presence “ can be achieved. Finding water in other planets is important to find as it can be utilized to “produce propellant and breathable oxygen.”

The mission is funded by the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD’s) Game Changing Development (GCD), a program created to evaluate current approaches to space exploration and its technology in an effort to improve upon equipment and standard practices regarding upcoming missions. The GCD team’s role is to secure the latest technology and ensure proper logistics are applied for “ground base testing, analytical modeling, and spaceflight demonstrations of payloads and experiments” by collaborating with research and development (R&D) teams.

For PRIME-1, the ice-mining drill will be developed by Honeybee Robotics of Pasadena, California, and the mass spectrometer by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in partnership with INFICON of Syracuse, New York.

The new payload to land on the Moon symbolizes the solid types of partnerships that have surmised as a result of the technology communities. Their collaboration allows for a synergistic relationship in developing innovation.

Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1)

PRIME-1 will be the first in-situ resource utilization demonstration on the Moon. The components, mounted to a lunar lander, will reach the moon and drill about 3 feet (1 meter) under the surface. Once on the moon, the mass spectrometer will then be used to measure how much of the ice is lost within the lunar vacuum as it converts directly into gas, a scientific process that also occurs on earth known as sublimation.

A Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain (or TRIDENT) will generally dig for regolith, meaning lunar soil, within a depth of about three feet at different intervals to allow for retrieval of already extracted matter. The different intervals also allow for the mass spectrometer observation lunar operations (MSolo) to determine the amount of water and other compounds present, and analyze samples found at different depths.

The PRIME-1 mission’s main goal is to provide NASA with significant information regarding the Moon’s resources. By collecting samples, studying them, and making sense out of them, the agency can focus on the potential of creating a viable lunar, living environment for humans within ten years. Versions of the mass spectrometer and drill from PRIME-1 will be sent with NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which is expected to reach the moon’s South Pole in 2023 to investigate ice data.

About Intuitive Machines

Founded in 2013 by Dr. Kam Ghaffarian, Steve Altemus, and Dr. Tim Crain, Intuitive Machines blends “deep technical knowledge with practices based on over 40 years of experience in human spaceflight.”

Intuitive Machines is known for engineering products from their inception to the full extent of their life. By conducting research processes, they are able to integrate product needs and examine them through their test services. Employees at Intuitive Machines collectively hold significant aerospace experience since a majority of them have worked for NASA. Their expertise is used to “design, analyze, integrate, test and fly aerospace systems for lunar landers, satellites, and human space flight.“

Among the company’s main products are the Universal Reentry Vehicle (URV), a system that can return payloads from Low Earth Orbit and Lunar Environments, and the Lunar Lander Nova-C, an LPDS that integrates a spacecraft/lander with payload launch services. They also offer services such as suit modeling and simulation, custom cable development, and vehicle developmental flight instrumentation, known to be some of the most innovative systems in the market.

About Honeybee Robotics

Honeybee Robotics, the company that will develop the ice-mining drill aboard the PRIME-1, is known to create some of the latest technologies in robotic systems-designed for the toughest of environments.

Honeybee’s electromechanical systems are designed to enhance the user experience and extend capabilities and have been used by NASA, Lockheed Martin, 3M, Ball, iRobot, IBM, and conEdison, among others. The company was founded in 1983 by Steve Gorevan and Chris Chapman and builds unique solutions for challenges both on Earth and in space.

About INFICON

INFICON will develop the mass spectrometer. They provide “world-class instruments for gas analysis, measurement, and control.” Among the company’s instruments are critical sensor technologies that detect gas leaks and advanced software for process control to improve productivity resulting in better industrial vacuum processes. With headquarters in Switzerland, INFICON has manufacturing facilities worldwide, including the United States, Europe, and China.

This article was originally published in Startup Savant on October 25, 2020. Link: https://startupsavant.com/news/machines-research-moon

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Anthropologist & User Experience Designer. I write about science and technology. Robot whisperer. VR enthusiast. Gamer. @yisela_at www.yisela.com

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