The initiatives are part of an evolving space exploration strategy that relies on indigenous resources, primarily to make rocket fuel for the return trip home, said media reports.
Studies show the most viable options for future human expeditions to Mars require what is known as “in-situ resource utilisation”, or IRSU, to save the enormous costs of launching everything from earth.
“Every dollar that you don’t have to launch from the Earth – things like water and air and propellant – means that you can add a dollar of intelligent mass – an experiment, a computer, something designed to accomplish some job or give us some capability,” lunar geologist Paul Spudis with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, US, was quoted as saying.
“Doing ISRU gives you incredible leverage because you’re changing the fraction of intelligent-to-dumb mass on your spacecraft in favour of the intelligent part,” he said.
The first in-space ISRU test is targeted for 2018.
NASA plans to launch a mission called Resource Prospector that includes a rover with instruments to scout for telltale hydrogen, drill out samples, heat them and scan for water vapour and other volatiles on the moon.
Vapour also could be re-condensed to form a drop of water.
The device, yet to be selected, would pull carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere, filter out dust and other particles and prepare the gas for chemical processing into oxygen.