CubeSat-compatible payload for early in situ demonstration / de-risking of key ISRU steps on asteroids, the Moon and Mars: Metal extraction PhD

Cranfield University

PhD 3 years Cranfield, UK

Uploaded 2 Feb 2021

Job Description

A PhD project opportunity for a candidate to develop and apply knowledge in space systems engineering to the on-going development of a miniaturised CubeSat-compatible payload focused on early in situ demonstration of ISRU processes on planetary bodies including the Moon, Mars and asteroids. 

The project will focus on increasing the developmental status of on-going payload studies – specifically taking 1st generation subsystem designs and developing more spaceflight compatible 2nd generation versions as well as initiating the detailed design and build of additional subsystems. This PhD project will focus on subsystem variants compatible with low-temperature extraction and trapping of metal ions from regolith with the trapping occurring via electroplating (i.e. electro-winning). 

As humans are expected to leave low Earth orbit in the near future and venture out into the Solar System (to the Moon, Mars, asteroids), the use of local resources on the surface of various planetary bodies is needed to support such activities. This has been termed In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) and includes the concept of Asteroid Mining. On the pathway to such implementations, early small-scale in situ demonstrations are required. Given the limited opportunities to visit such locations, miniaturised payloads able to demonstrate, validate and de-risk ISRU processes are needed. Miniaturised CubeSat-compatible payload appears to be a viable route to achieve this.

The Space Group at Cranfield University has initiated the development of a range of sub-systems for CubeSat-compatible payloads able to demonstrate some key steps required for ISRU on planetary (the Moon and Mars) and Near-Earth Objects (NEO) surfaces such as asteroids. The sub-systems include (i) sample / regolith acquisition, (ii) sample / regolith low temperature thermal processing (≤+150°C), (iii) capture of released resources, (iv) further processing of released resources and (v) analytical capabilities to observe and quantified the preceding steps. The sub-systems under consideration are compatible with (i) volatile water extraction, (ii) low temperature liquid leaching of metal ions (both chemical and biological leaching) and electrochemical further processing (water electrolysis, metal ion electro-winning). This project will focus on low temperature metal ion extraction. To date, a 1st generation of some of these subsystems has been designed and laboratory breadboard versions built and tested at Cranfield University.

The project will take the existing 1st generation designs and laboratory breadboard models for sample acquisition and low temperature thermal processing and evolve these designs to 2nd generations better suited for spaceflight use and for testing, demonstration and validation in space-relevant environments which include thermal vacuum simulation facilities and microgravity – the latter via intended parabolic flight opportunities. Additionally, to design the first implementation of subsystems for extracted resource capture and subsequent electrochemical processing. For this project with its focus on low-temperature metal ion extraction these will be a leachate delivery and re-generation system, and a metal ion capture subsystem exploiting metal electroplating (termed electro-winning in the mining and ore processing industry). 

The project will take place in the laboratories and workshops of the Space Group within Cranfield University and is anticipated to exploit ESA parabolic flight opportunities. 

It is expected that the outputs of the project will be advanced designs and demonstrations of the various subsystems and their integration such that the maturity of the system will enable spaceflight opportunities to be explored / proposed. One evolving opportunity is via the upcoming flights of the planned ESA European Large Logistic Lander (to the Moon) as well as future asteroid missions.

The student will gain a broad knowledge of designing, building and testing spaceflight systems and knowledge of the applications to in situ resource utilisation applications required to support human exploration of the Moon and Mars as well as in the context of asteroid mining.

Person Specification

Applicants should have a first or second class UK honours degree or equivalent in a related discipline. This project would suit someone with an engineering or related technical or physical sciences degree or chemical engineering degree and with interests in / experience of building / testing instrumentation and related systems.