Mining asteroids could enrich humanity with untold wealth, but while we’re out there, why not construct spacecraft out of the asteroid husks?
A few decades from now, asteroids may be flying themselves to mining outposts in space, nobly sacrificing their abundant resources to help open the final frontier to humanity.
That’s the vision of California-based company Made In Space, which was recently awarded NASA funding to investigate how to turn asteroids into giant, autonomous spacecraft.
The project, known as RAMA (Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata), is part of Made In Space’s long-term plan to enable space colonization by helping make off-Earth manufacturing efficient and economically viable. [How Asteroid Mining Could Work (Infographic)]
“Today, we have the ability to bring resources from Earth,” Made In Space co-founder and chief technology officer Jason Dunn told Space.com. “But when we get to a tipping point where we need the resources in space, then the question becomes, ‘Where do they come from and how do we get them, and how do we deliver them to the location that we need?’ This is a way to do it.”
Made In Space’s idea involves sending an advanced, robotic “Seed Craft” out to rendezvous with a succession of near-Earth asteroids in space.
The Seed Craft would harvest material from the space rocks, then use this feedstock to construct propulsion, navigation, energy-storage and other key systems onsite with the aid of 3D printing and other technologies. (Made In Space has considerable 3D-printing expertise; the company built the two 3D printers that were installed aboard the International Space Station in the past year and a half.)
Thus transformed into autonomous spacecraft, the asteroids could be programmed to fly to a mining station in Earth-moon space, or anywhere else they were needed. This approach would be much more efficient than launching a new capture probe (or probes) to every single space rock targeted for resource exploitation, Made In Space representatives said.
Artist’s illustration of an asteroid that has been turned into a giant mechanical spacecraft, which could fly itself to a mining outpost.
Made In Space
The converted asteroids wouldn’t resemble the traditional idea of spacecraft, with rocket engines and complex electronic circuitry. Rather, everything would be mechanical and relatively primitive.
For example, the computer would be analog, akin, perhaps, to the Antikythera mechanism invented by the ancient Greeks to chart the motion of heavenly bodies, Dunn said. And the propulsion system might be some sort of catapult that launches boulders or other material off the asteroid in a controlled way, thereby pushing the space rock in the opposite direction (as described by Newton’s Third Law of Motion), he added.
“At the end of the day, the thing that we want the asteroid to be is technology that has existed for a long time. The question is, ‘Can we convert an asteroid into that technology at some point in the future?'” Dunn said. “We think the answer is yes.”
Project RAMA is not starting from scratch. Autonomous 3D printers that use mechanically driven systems already exist, Dunn noted, as do mechanical computers made of 3D-printed parts.
Still, making it happen will require significant advances in a number of areas, including in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) — the art of living off the land. Made In Space is counting on NASA to push ISRU technology forward, Dunn said. (Advanced ISRU tech will be vital for supporting astronauts on Mars and other off-Earth outposts, NASA officials have said.) [What Technology Will Humans Need to Explore Mars? (Video)]
Early Days Yet
Made In Space’s larger vision won’t be realized for a while, because RAMA is still in the very early stages.
Read more at Seeker.com