A systems of systems methodology for conceptual studies of in-situ resource utilization for near earth object applications

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Kitson, Christopher Curtice
Mavris, Dimitri N.
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Near Earth Objects (NEO) have historically been neglected as an object of study relative to other celestial bodies. Interest has been increasing as more recognize the potential value of NEO resources represented by ‘asteroid mining’, especially as a supporting role in a Systems of Systems (SoS) context. After all, reusable rockets require refueling before reuse. That propellant needs to come from somewhere. Still, a feasible means to harness NEO resources has proven elusive. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) is a broad field with literature siloed by both disciplines and use cases. This is especially apparent for existing NEO ISRU concepts, with wildly varying levels of detail between systems in the same concept, including omission of key functions. Pet projects given context imply ‘technology push’ instead of ‘mission pull’. This thesis aims to show NEO ISRU is more feasible than previously believed, by providing a more comprehensive treatment of the required functionality and the means to deliver it. This boils down to permitting better comparisons via enabling trade studies at the conceptual level (NASA pre-phase A). A sample return mission using propellant produced from NEO resources for the return trip is formulated to contextualize the analysis. A program to develop a design that accomplishes this mission could be named “Sample return from Near earth object with In-situ Propellant production Technology demonstrator” (SNIPT). Both qualitative and quantitative design aspects are considered herein. Qualitative aspects are considered first. By reconciling commonalities between concepts, standardized terminology is proposed through a functional decomposition along with a morphological matrix of alternatives. A streamlined technology readiness assessment is performed to rank these morphological options. This information is used to select four concepts, one for each propellant type considered. Both impulsive (methalox and hydrolox) and continuous (hydrogen and steam) propulsion are considered as possible customers of an In-Situ Propellant Production (ISPP) SoS. Another significant part of this effort is quantifying alternatives sufficiently to permit comparisons beyond subject matter expert opinions. A modular sizing code is developed from scratch in line with the selected morphological options for each propellant, and verified at the module level using analog test data. By establishing baseline design(s), perturbations can be compared with directionally correct results. Input parameters for NEO orbital characteristics and then NEO composition are varied to ascertain effects upon sizing results. These results inform a trade study between the four propellant types considered. It was found that previous modeling efforts for NEO ISRU concepts have grossly underestimated the overall plant mass, likely due to neglecting indirect ISRU functionality and energy use. This includes sized values for mass payback ratio (MPR ≈ 5) and mass-specific regolith throughput (f_REG ≈ 0.3 day^(-1) ) which were previously overestimated by orders of magnitude. Methalox works better above 5 C: 1 H atoms by mass, a restrictive niche. Steam had the highest MPR but also heaviest plant mass. Hydrolox was found to be lightest on average for low Δv, with hydrogen lighter for high values, though hydrogen had MPR < 1 due to low volatile utilization. Increasing the proportion of volatiles used to make the propellant was found to reduce specific energy intensity, which in turn increases MPR.
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