NASA SBIR 2004 Solicitation


PROPOSAL NUMBER: 04 X1.02-8480
SUBTOPIC TITLE: In-Situ Resource Excavation and Separation
PROPOSAL TITLE: Low-energy Planetary Excavator (LPE)

SMALL BUSINESS CONCERN (Name, E-mail, Mail Address, City/State/Zip, Phone)
Orbital Technologies Corp
Space Center, 1212 Fourier Drive
Madison, WI 53717-1961

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR/PROJECT MANAGER (Name, E-mail, Mail Address, City/State/Zip, Phone)
Robert J. Gustafson
1212 Fourier Drive
Madison, WI 53717-1961

ORBITEC proposes to develop an innovative Low-energy Planetary Excavator (LPE) to excavate in situ regolith, ice-regolith mixes, and a variety of other geologic materials to support future activities on the Moon and Mars. The LPE utilizes an innovative cutterhead to efficiently excavate a wide range of different planetary surface materials. Current mechanical excavators mount a fixed array of rock cutting tools on a cutterhead that operates efficiently only in a narrow range of material conditions. The LPE would be able to accommodate the different materials that are encountered on planetary surfaces. The LPE will sense geologic changes and respond with changes to achieve the lowest cutting energy possible. The result is a flexible machine with reduced power requirements. A large LPE would be used to mine ice deposits and regolith for processing, and to excavate openings for habitats and shielding. A small LPE would be used for exploration. One LPE would be simpler and easier to maintain than a stable of excavators, each for a specific geology or application. Phase I will define mined-material properties, extra-terrestrial applications, system requirements, a prototype design, and support systems. Phase II will design, develop, test, and deliver a functional prototype LPE unit to NASA.

Excavations for ISRU are included in many NASA scenarios to reduce mission operations costs. The LPE would be a general-purpose machine with the ability to mine ice, regolith, and rock; it would also support construction activities. The LPE is easily scaled from very small to large. It is applicable to future manned/unmanned exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. It could also be adapted for use in ultra-low gravity environments, such as asteroids. Efficient and reliable excavation of a wide variety of planetary surface materials will greatly enhance/enable exploration and bases from start-up outposts to advanced self-sustaining complexes.

The same qualities of the LPE that apply to space would also attract terrestrial users. Development of the LPE will improve terrestrial excavators. The terrestrial market is expanding rapidly as demand for urban infrastructure (foundation openings, transportation tunnels, utility passages, etc.) skyrockets. Urban construction settings restrict the use of explosives, to minimize damaging vibrations, making mechanical methods attractive. In addition, shallow tunnel construction is rapidly changing from cut-and-cover to wholly underground, because excavations disrupt city traffic. Coupled with increasing population, these factors enhance the market for innovatively flexible systems such as the LPE.