The Technology Transfer and Partnerships Office
Energy Resources in Space

To date, the use of solar radiation to provide onboard electrical power remains the sole application of a space resource that has been exploited to sustain exploration missions. Even if one includes vacuum and the thermal sink offered by interplanetary space as exploited resources, our fleet of spacecraft is designed to operate in space environments without tapping their vast potentials.

The paradigm shift in space exploration created by the use of space resources extends beyond ensuring the survival of human crews. It is transformative also in its ability to offer in-situ solutions to the need for power generation and consumables production for both robotic and dual actor (human-robot) missions as well.

Energy Resources in Space
Artist depiction of lunar base elements relying heavily on solar energy (image credit: NASA).

Solar energy has played and continues to play a critical role in space missions because most spacecraft rely on electrical energy as a sole source of power for onboard systems. Photovoltaic solar panels have been typically used for missions within the orbit of Mars (inner solar system) and radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) must be used in the outer solar system. The decision to power the Mars Science Laboratory with RTG is a departure from the use of solar photovoltaics on Mars rovers; it allows the selection of more landing locations where solar illumination is lower and makes more power available to the larger craft. It also offers greater thermal control through the use of the heat from radioactive decay into the craft systems. The thermal control of spacecraft is indeed a very important aspect of ISRU energy since the heat sources encountered in free space and on planetary surfaces can be used to regulate the thermal state of a craft or even to provide it with power.

ISRU processing technologies need to achieve sufficient reactor temperatures to extract various resources such as water, volatiles and oxygen from the regolith or enable chemical reactions to synthesize molecules of interest for parts fabrication. With that purpose in mind, harnessing the thermal energy of solar radiation is of great interest particularly on the Moon.

The following works exemplify this interest in the ISRU Technology Development Project: