Off-Earth mining may soon be a reality, thanks to plans of turning asteroids into spaceships.
This is the vision behind California-based Made in Space, recently granted funding from NASA to prove how asteroids can be turned into massive autonomous spacecraft.
Dubbed Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata (RAMA), the project works toward enabling colonization of space through efficient and economically feasible off-planet manufacturing. Here, asteroids will likely be flying to mining stations and providing their resources toward this ambition.
Made in Space chief technology executive and co-founder Jason Dunn said that after the ability to harness resources from Earth, the next concern is how they will be delivered to specific locations in space.
“[T]he 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,” he told Space.com.
NASA explained that the plan will leverage trends in additive manufacturing as well as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) — the mastery of living off the land — to drive asteroid rendezvous missions forward. Here, a set of “technically simple robotic processes” will be key.
From Asteroids To Autonomous Spacecraft
The plan will send an advanced and robotic “Seed Craft” out to rendezvous with a lineup of near-Earth asteroids found in space. Afterwards, the Seed Craft will harvest space rock materials and use them to build navigation, propulsion, and other crucial spacecraft systems with assistance from technologies like 3D printing.
Made in Space previously constructed two different 3D printers installed onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Once built as autonomous spaceship, the asteroids will be made to fly to a mining outpost in the Earth-moon surroundings — a technique that will be far more practical than a new space launch to exploit a space rock’s resources every time.
Take note, however, that the transformed asteroids would be mechanical and quite primitive in design: computers will be analog, while the propulsion structure could be a mere catapult launching boulders off the asteroid and pushing it in the opposite way.
Plans And Prospects
Project RAMA remains in the early stages, with the Phase 1 grant from NASA received only in April. Phase 1 awardees of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) will get $100,000 for preliminary feasibility studies equivalent to nine months.
Phase 2, on the other hand, comes with about $500,000, funding two years’ worth of additional concept development.
The technology development for RAMA, Dunn admitted, could take two decades or so. This means that the first Seed Craft will likely get running sometime in the late 2030s.
He added, though, that their concept could also be applied here on the planet, such as autonomously building things in remote areas and converting other resources into practical machines.
Asteroid Mining Now
Meanwhile, the asteroid mining remains very much alive this week, with Luxembourg allocating over $200 million to initiatives that would bring valuable resources back from space.
The small European nation made the financial commitment in its latest step toward leading the asteroid mining field. Related measures include the promise of legislating rights for asteroid mining and forging a partnership with a public bank and mining firm Deep Space Industries.
The target: to be among the top 10 space-faring countries in the world, said its deputy prime minister Etienne Schneider.
The prevailing hope for these countries and private companies is that mining these asteroids and other near-Earth objects will offer access to water, minerals, and metals for terrestrial purposes and to steer space exploration forward.
The first resource extraction could occur as early as 2020, when an asteroid’s materials, for the first time, will be harvested for human use.