NASA Invests in Tech Concepts Aimed at Exploring Lunar Craters, Mining Asteroids

Robotically surveying lunar craters in record time and mining resources in space could help NASA establish a sustained human presence at the Moon – part of the agency’s broader Moon to Mars exploration approach. Two mission concepts to explore these capabilities have been selected as the first-ever Phase III studies within the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

The inaugural Phase III selections are:

Robotic Technologies Enabling the Exploration of Lunar Pits
William Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

Illustration of the Skylight mission concept, a 2019 NIAC Phase III. Credit: William Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University.

This mission concept, called Skylight, proposes technologies to rapidly survey and model lunar craters. This mission would use high-resolution images to create three-dimensional models of craters. The data would be used to determine whether a crater can be explored by human or robotic missions. The information could also be used to characterize ice on the Moon, a crucial capability for the sustained surface operations of NASA’s Artemis program. On Earth, the technology could be used to autonomously monitor mines and quarries.

Mini Bee Prototype to Demonstrate the Apis Mission Architecture and Optical Mining Technology
Joel Sercel, TransAstra Corporation, Lake View Terrace, California

This flight demonstration mission concept proposes a method of asteroid resource harvesting called optical mining. Optical mining is an approach for excavating an asteroid and extracting water and other volatiles into an inflatable bag. Called Mini Bee, the mission concept aims to prove that optical mining, in conjunction with other innovative spacecraft systems, can be used to obtain propellant in space. The proposed architecture includes resource prospecting, extraction, and delivery.

  • Related Phase II study report.

    Illustration of the Mini Bee mission concept, a 2019 NIAC Phase III. Credit: TransAstra Corporation.

NASA selected the Phase III proposals through a review process that evaluated innovativeness and technical viability of the proposed projects. All projects still are in the early stages of development, but this final phase is designed to mature technologies so they can be transitioned to government and industry for implementation.

For more information about NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration plans, visit

For more information about NASA’s investments in space technology, visit