- a proposal for America’s space program during the current administration -


Harvesting lunar polar ice is key to greatly lowering the cost of accessing the Moon, the international exploration of the Moon, sustaining a permanent base on the Moon, providing tranportation services throughout the Earth-Moon space, and perhaps even providing propellant for crewed missions to Mars. Remotely-controlled telerobots will be the primary ones harvesting the icy lunar dirt and processing the extracted water into propellant for the landers. Harvesting lunar polar ice won't require a huge industrial infrastructure. Instead, it will require just two types of telerobots both of which could be delivered to the Moon starting with the first automated launch to the Moon.

The key telerobot to harvest and process the ice will be the Ice Harvestor. It could be designed to perform the function of multiple pieces of hardware thereby reducing the amount of equipment mass needed to be transported to the Moon. Depending upon the vertical distribution of the lunar polar ice, this telerobot could use a bucketwheel excavator to scoop up the icy dirt into its body. After closing a lid, the telerobot would tumble the icy dirt and heat it thereby causing the volatiles to steam out and into a container on its body. After drying the dirt it would open a lid and "poop" out the dry dirt, move a few feet forward and repeat the process. The Ice Harvesters would be operated by people on Earth doing shifts so that the telerobots could work 24/7.

After its volatile tanks are full, it could back up to and connect to the lander at which time the volatiles could be reheated and the water and organics separated through the process of distillation. The water would be pumped into the lander while the frozen organics would be placed aside for later use. Power coming down from the solar drapes at the sunlit rim would allow for the continuous electrolyzing of the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen and oxygen would be stored in the lander's propellant tanks thereby negating the need for any separate storage and transfer tanks.

It has been calculated that, given 2.5 metric tons of solar drapes, there would be enough power to electrolyze the amount of water necessary to fully refuel the lander in about 22 days. So, conservatively, the landers could be conducting flights about once a month. Refueled landers could conduct a variety of increasingly challenging missions throughout the Earth-Moon space. A fully refueled lander could also retrieve about 20 metric tons of cargo for each Falcon Heavy launch thereby allowing the Falcon Heavy to deliver more cargo to the Moon and as much cargo to the Moon as the SLS.

It is inevitable that the telerobotic parts would wear out with time. What to do? Here's where the Dexterous Telerobots come in. Somewhat humanoid, the dexterous telerobots would have a head with eyes, arms and hands, and could move around not on legs and feet but on a rover body. Its uses would include connecting power cables, swapping out spare parts on the Ice Harvester, and preparing the habitat prior to crew arrival.

Working with GM, NASA has developed the Robonaut 2. One of these is currently on the International Space Station. With hands that same size as that of people, it can use the same tools that people do. It also has a chariot that it can ride on and it can stoop over to pick up something on the ground.

How can the Ice Harvester be kept going when breakdowns are inevitable? Initially, the Dexterous Telerobot would not do actual repairs tot he Ice Harvesters but rather only swap out spare parts. Parts should be so designed so as to be easily swapped out using quick release mechanisms. An example of this is the modern bicycle tire that requires no tools. With a simple tug of a lever and spinning it around, the wheel can be disconnected from the forks.

Just two telerobots are needed -- an Ice Harvester and a Dexterous Telerobot.

Next: Lunar COTS