Lunar ISRU and Orbital Propellant Depots

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Lunar propellant production requires landing a suitable rig near one of the lunar poles, drilling into (or recovery by other means, i.e. scooping, grading, ect.) water bound up in regolith, or existing as free deposits of ice in permanently shadowed craters.

On 18 November 2008, the Moon Impact probe was released from Chandrayaan-1 at a height of 100 kilometers. During its 25-minute descent, the impact probe's Chandra's Altitudinal Composition (CHACE) recorded evidence of water in 650 mass spectra gathered in the thin atmosphere above the Moon's surface.[7] In September 2009, India's ISRO Chandrayaan-1 detected water on the Moon[8][9] and hydroxyl absorption lines in reflected sunlight. In November 2009, NASA reported that its LCROSS space probe had detected a significant amount of hydroxyl group in the material thrown up from a south polar crater by an impactor;[10] this may be attributed to water-bearing materials[11] – what appears to be "near pure crystalline water-ice".[12] In March 2010, it was reported that the Mini-RF on board the ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 had discovered more than 40 permanently darkened craters near the Moon's north pole which are hypothesized to contain an estimated 600 million metric tonnes (1.3 trillion pounds) of water-ice. Cite: Lunar Water.

Collected material is fed through an on-board electrolyses plant seperating out LH2 and Oxygen. A reuseuable lander transports propellant to lunar orbit where it feeds an orbital propellant depot. OTV’s (Orbital Transfer Vehicles) can transfer propellant to other depots at LEO and L1, or L2. This kind of orbital infrastructure can eliminate the need for expensive to develop large boosters like NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System) and empower scientific missions and commercial ventures.

Why ISRU on And From The Moon is Important by William-Black


Image Credit: Mike Duke, Brad Blair, et al... It is from their 2004 work, Lunar Propellant Production. Opening of presentation here.


I think all of us who have observed in frustration the lack of progress towards a manned Mars mission and the lack of other endeavors in cislunar space and beyond over the past 45 years probably realize there is a problem with NASA’s funding model. As Winchell Chung recently observed, “it’s broken.”

I tend to agree.

The problem is one of long development time-frames coupled with the uncertain support of political leadership. 

The answer lies in this direction: Bigelow report calls for use of COTS model for cislunar transportation.

“America is facing a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions making the likelihood of increased funds for human space exploration highly unlikely,” states an advance copy of the report provided by the company. “Therefore, the only viable option for the U.S. to reach cislunar space is to leverage the efficiencies, innovations, and investments of commercial enterprises.”

The report specifically advocates an approach modeled on the COTS program, where NASA used funded Space Act Agreements (SAAs) to support the development of cargo transportation systems by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. That led to service contracts with those two companies to transport cargo to and from the station. NASA is following a similar approach with its commercial crew program, using funded SAAs to support development of crewed systems, which it plans to follow up with contracts to complete development and certification of those systems and initial purchases of flights.

That approach, the Bigelow report argues, can allow NASA and the private sector to work together on exploration and commercialization of cislunar space, including the establishment of a lunar base, something NASA is not currently planning to develop for the foreseeable future. “Over the next ten years, it is very possible that if NASA can soon adopt some of the suggestions within this report in combination with current steps underway by NASA and the private commercial sector, a permanent, semi-commercial lunar base is achievable and for substantially less money than people would imagine.”


In the first of two reports recently issued to NASA – but not made public – under an unfunded space act agreement (known as the “Gate 1 Report”), Bigelow indicated that he believes that “without cost effective human habitats, America’s human space exploration ambitions throughout our solar system isn’t going to happen.” Cite: Affordable habitats means more Buck Rogers for less money says Bigelow.

Bigelow writes in the Gate 1 report that cost reduction of rocket technology has never been addressed by NASA and that the commercial sector can help in this respect.

“Until recently, the commercial sector has been locked out. All of the usual cost per lb. calculations everyone uses are all based on the wrong production metrics,” Bigelow noted.

“They are government costs in partnership with parochial contractors with no connection to the real world. Under the right leadership, the costs of habitable systems and transportation can be drastically reduced from what has been the usual American experience.”


Toward this end SpaceX’s ambition to reuseability, if fully realized, could be a game changer. Cutting launch costs with full reuseability could throw the door wide open, enabling commercial investment in cislunar infrastructure that can benefit scientific research and exploration and commercial venture. See Partial vs Full Reusability.

Recommended Reading:

Bigelow: Moon Property rights would help create a lunar industry

Affordable habitats means more Buck Rogers for less money says Bigelow.
© 2015 - 2024 William-Black
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Hop41's avatar
Nice post. One of my fondest dreams is to see Bigelow and Musk working together. Putting habs in orbit, on the moon, mars and asteroids.