California 3D printing and space technology firm Made In Space is responsible for such out of this world innovations as the first commercial 3D printer on the International Space Station, the multi-armed 3D printing space robot Archinaut, and the manufacture of the first extended 3D printed objects in a space-like environment. The company works closely with NASA, and two years ago received funding from the agency for its ambitious plan to turn asteroids into autonomous spaceships, which could help NASA finalize its long-term goal of constructing human colonies in space.

Right now, NASA can only bring back small pieces of space rock. But Project RAMA (Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata) hopes to establish the concept feasibility of using analog computers and mechanisms – along with 3D printing – to convert asteroids into huge mechanical spacecraft, which could carry large amounts of raw asteroid material. This could be the impetus for the off-Earth mining that will be necessary if humanity wants to survive and thrive among the stars.

Artist’s illustration of an asteroid that has been turned into a giant mechanical spacecraft, which could fly itself to a mining outpost. [Image: Made In Space]

Asteroids are pretty cool – many of them contain valuable resources, such as water and platinum-group metals, and roughly 100 tons of asteroid and comet material hit the Earth’s atmosphere each day. As part of the plan to turn these massive rock formations into functioning spacecraft, Made In Space plans to send an advanced, robotic seed craft out to space, in order to to meet with several near-Earth asteroids.

This craft would then harvest space rock material and turn it into feedstock, which can be 3D printed to build energy storage, navigation, propulsion, and other important systems on-site. Once the converted asteroid is ready, it can be programmed to autonomously fly to a mining station; according to Made In Space representatives, this approach is far more efficient than having to launch new capture probes out to space rocks.

While we don’t currently have the ability or the technology to 3D print something like a digital guidance computer with materials found on an asteroid, Made In Space realized that one doesn’t have to rely on digital electronics if a huge amount of raw material, with no constraints on mass or volume, is available instead.

“At the end of the day, the thing that we want the asteroid to be is technology that has existed for a long time,” said Made In Space Co-Founder and CTO Jason Dunn. “The question is, ‘Can we convert an asteroid into that technology at some point in the future?’ We think the answer is yes.”

Two years ago, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which encourages development of space-exploration technologies, awarded Made In Space a $100,000 Phase 1 grant for nine months of initial feasibility studies. During this phase, the company focused on how the seed craft would have to work, defining its requirements, and building a technological roadmap. If the company chooses, it can also apply for a two-year, $500,000 Phase 2 award for continuing concept development. In the meantime, Made In Space is counting on NASA to push forward in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – the art of living off the land, which is necessary for astronauts who could someday live on planetary outposts.

Required capabilities of the RAMA craft, arranged in approximate order of mass requirements, showing the source of the materials used to provide each capability as assumed for the rest of this study.

These asteroid ships will probably not look much like traditional spaceships, with their electronic circuitry and rocket engines, but instead would use analog computers and a catapult type of propulsion system that will launch asteroid material in a controlled way. By using mass drivers to shoot chunks of itself in one direction, an asteroid could potentially accelerate itself in the opposite direction. While this method is only about 10% as efficient as a chemical rocket engine, the propellant is free.

3D printing could be used to make some of the asteroid spacecraft parts, like flywheel gyros for guidance and stabilization, tanks for storing volatile materials, and solar concentrators to generate mechanical power through the release of pressure to open the tanks.

While Project RAMA is still moving forward, Dunn acknowledges that its completion is still way in the future…and that eventually, it could even have applications on Earth.

Dunn explained, “The anticipation is that the RAMA architecture is a long time line, and when it becomes capable is about the same time that people really need the resources.

“You could build infrastructure in remote locations somewhat autonomously, and convert resources into useful devices and mechanical machines. This actually could solve some pretty big problems on Earth, from housing to construction of things that make people’s lives better.”

Diagram of an asteroid that has been converted into a mechanical spacecraft by a robotic “Seed Craft.” [Image: Zoe Brinkley]

The other goal of Project RAMA is to be able to make asteroids into self-assembled spacecraft.

“One of the big questions is, how do you take today’s most intricate machines and make them replicate themselves? That seems really hard: how do you replicate electronics and processing units and so on,” Dunn said. “And that’s when we had this concept that there are types of machines that could potentially be easy to self-replicate, and those would be very basic, analog type devices. The problem is if you have a small mechanical machine, it’s not very useful. But what if the machine itself was the size of an asteroid? What could you do with a mechanical machine that large?”

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