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NASA Eyes Wild Space Tech Ideas to Mine the Moon (and Asteroids, Too!)

An artist's depiction of the Mini Bee spacecraft designed to test optical mining in space.
An artist's depiction of the Mini Bee spacecraft designed to test optical mining in space. (Image credit: TransAstra Corporation)

Two far-off NASA concepts could quickly survey lunar craters for astronauts and help identify mining resources on nearby asteroids.

The projects come courtesy of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which pursues theoretical ideas that could take many years to come to fruition. Each project is at the most advanced stage of development NIAC has offered to date, Phase III, and will receive up to $2 million to outline the mission concept, according to a NASA statement released on Tuesday (June 11).

"This is the first year NASA offered a NIAC Phase III opportunity, and there were many strong proposals," Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive, said in the statement. "We selected two proposals because we think both of the technologies could positively impact the industry. We are excited that these technology concepts could help humanity explore space in new ways."

Related: Venus Missions? Interstellar Probes? Here Are 18 Wild Space Tech Ideas NASA Is Looking At

The first mission concept, called Skylight, could help support NASA's push to send humans back to the moon. President Donald Trump's administration tasked the agency with landing humans on the surface again by 2024, to create a way station for future Mars exploration.

Skylight, which is led by William Whittaker, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, aspires to help future astronauts working on the moon. Using high-resolution images taken from close up, Skylight would create 3D models of craters. The models would show whether it is safe for a human (or a rover) to descend into and explore the features.  

An artist's depiction of the Skylight mission at work exploring the surface of the moon.  (Image credit: William Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University)

The system could also identify ice in the shadows. That capability is intriguing because would-be lunar explorers argue that water on the moon is a valuable resource for future human settlements and would reduce what astronauts need to haul from Earth.

The other project is called Mini Bee and is led by Joel Sercel, founder and CEO of TransAstra Corp. Mini Bee hopes to develop a way to mine resources from asteroids, which are full of water and minerals. The project would extract resources through a method called optical mining, which would concentrate sunlight onto the asteroid. This process would wear away the surface, and any generated debris would be collected into an inflatable bag. 

The team hopes to use this process to generate propellant in space, reducing the need for astronauts to haul fuel on their missions.

The NIAC program expects to fund one Phase III study per year in the coming years, NASA said. Each study team gets two years of research time to flesh out the concept enough to transfer the idea to industry or government for further mission development and implementation.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.