Lunar Ice-Trap ISRU Mining, Processing and Storage Infrastructure

Welcome back to the “Vencore Geek Tribute” series. As I delve further into the world of healthcare analytics, I marvel more about the power of cross-science dialogue. I love to sit at the table with scientists whose brains have been trained differently, and watch those disparate perspectives create new approaches to the challenges of scaling computing infrastructure, handling terabytes of data, and ensuring clinical relevance. Our last post focused on the combination of physics and biology. I am a clinician-turned-medical analytics expert. Today, we hear from one of our aerospace engineers. He has studied the intricacies of sending large objects to the moon, and now he is helping us to expand our healthcare computing platform and analytics.

Tara Grabowsky, MD
Chief Medical Officer, Vencore

In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) is defined as "the collection, processing, storing and use of materials encountered in the course of human or robotic space exploration that replace materials that would otherwise be brought from Earth."

During my senior year at Penn State University I joined a team of six aerospace engineers to design a water ice mining facility in a permanently shadowed crater located in the lunar South Pole. This was theoretical, of course, but over the next nine months I felt like I traveled to the moon and back!

We broke the project into subsystems: structures, propulsion, launch vehicle, power, thermal, communications, guidance navigation and control, command and data handling, ground control, mission architecture, and scientific instruments. I designed the structures subsystem.

Each subsystem had its own set of aerospace-related theories and calculations. For example, structures was responsible for calculating required sizes of the infrastructure, what type of material to use, then calculate mass estimates of the space rated material used. Launch vehicle then used those mass estimates to choose the best launch vehicle based on our needs and mission budget. Propulsion used various rocket equations to calculate efficient propellants to use. Communications had an arsenal of equations to determine required antenna sizes and data rates.

We worked the mission from the brainstorming phase to a fully designed conceptual mission. I worked with my teammate responsible for the thermal subsystem. We integrated his mission requirements with the structures I had designed for the mission. I also collaborated frequently with the launch vehicle system to design structures and rovers to fit efficiently into the selected vehicle’s payload fairing. One challenge we had to overcome was the propellant storage unit, where the propellant we produced would be stored. A mission requirement to store 100 tons of propellant annually was quite a challenge. A standard solid metal tank is no big deal for storage on earth, however transporting it to the moon is. The storage tanks were limited by both the payload fairing of the launch vehicles as well as the mass of such a large structure. I designed an inflatable storage tank made out of flexible materials at cryogenic temperatures that could hold tons of propellant while capable of hitching an easy ride to the moon. The tanks used a network of aluminum trusses to unfold upon lunar arrival, all encased in a three-layer fabric comprised of Teflon®, Cryogel® Z and woven Kevlar®.

In the end, we had designed a resource refining facility, power and data distribution facility, mining rovers, mapping rovers, storage units and a repair rover. It was a system that was fully autonomous and able to produce 100 tons of hydrogen/oxygen propellant annually.

Though this project was theoretical, I learned practical knowledge to “launch” my career as a rocket scientist.

Tobie Sneeringer
Data Scientist