NASA’s Vision: Robots to Help Mine Asteroids

asteroid_mining_robotIn a recent study, NASA shared a vision that sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Basically, the plan calls for the creation of robots that could be sent to a nearby asteroid, assemble itself, and then begin mining the asteroid itself. The scientists behind this study say that not only will this be possible within a few generations of robotics, but will also pay for itself – a major concern when it comes to space travel.

A couple of factors are pointing to this, according to the researchers. One, private industry is willing and able to get involved, as attested to by Golden Spike, SpaceX and Planetary Resources. Second, advances in technologies such as 3-D printing are making off-world work more feasible, which can be seen with plans to manufacture a Moon base and “sintering”.

asteroidsBut also, humanity’s surveys of space resources – namely those located in the asteroid belt – have revealed that the elements needed to make rubber, plastic and alloys needed for machinery are there in abundance. NASA proposes that a robotic flotilla could mine these nearby space rocks, process the goods, and then ship them back to Earth.

Best of all, the pods being sent out would save on weight (and hence costs) by procuring all the resources and constructing the robots there. They caution the technology won’t be ready tomorrow, and more surveys will need to be done of nearby asteroids to figure out where to go next. There is, however, enough progress to see building blocks. As the agency stated in their research report:

Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost…

asteroid_belt1Phil Metzger, a senior research physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, who led the study, went on to explain how the process is multi-tiered and would encompass several generations of progress:

Robots and machines would just make the metal and propellants for starters… The first generation of robots makes the second generation of hardware, except the comparatively lightweight electronics and motors that have to be sent up from Earth. It doesn’t matter how much the large structures weigh because you didn’t have to launch it.

A computer model in the study showed that in six generations of robotics, these machines will be able to construct themselves and operate without any need of materials from Earth.

asteroid_foundryAt least two startups are likely to be on board with this optimistic appraisal. For example, Deep Space Industries and Planetary, both commercial space companies, have proposed asteroid mining ideas within the past year. And since then, Planetary Resources has also unveiled other projects such as a public space telescope, in part for surveying work and the sake of prospecting asteroids.

And this latest research report just takes thing a step farther. In addition to setting up autonomous 3D manufacturing operations on asteroids, these operations would be capable of setting themselves up and potentially upgrading themselves as time went on. And in the meantime, we could look forward to a growing and increasingly complex supply of manufactured products here on Earth.

Source: universetoday.com

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