Within 4-5 years Made In Space believes their Archinaut space manufacturing robot and manufacturing mini factory will be making large structures like trusses and reflectors in space.
The Archinaut has an industrial-sized 3-D printer, cartridges full of plastics and alloys, and robotic arms programmed to assemble the big items extruded by the printer without any human supervision. All Archinaut parts are able to survive in microgravity and harsh conditions like lunar dust storms and extreme temperatures.
Future Asteroid Mining Plans
In 2016, Made in Space had a NASA NIAC phase 1 feasibility study for using analog computers and mechanisms to convert entire asteroids into enormous autonomous mechanical spacecraft. Project RAMA, Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata, has been designed to leverage the advancing trends of additive manufacturing (AM) and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) to enable asteroid rendezvous missions in which a set of technically simple robotic processes convert asteroid elements into very basic versions of spacecraft subsystems (GNC, Propulsion, Avionics). Upon completion, the asteroid will be a programmed mechanical automata carrying out a given mission objective; such as relocation to an Earth-Moon libration point for human rendezvous.
Assuming the development trends continue for industry based AM methods as well as NASA and industry investments in ISRU capabilities, Project RAMA will create a space mission architecture within a 20-30 year time frame.
Previous studies for asteroid retrieval have been constrained to studying only asteroids that are both large enough to be discovered, and small enough to be captured and transported using Earth-launched propulsion technology. Project RAMA is not forced into this constraint. The mission concept studied involved transporting a much larger ~50 meter asteroid to cislunar space. Demonstration of transport of a 50 meter class asteroid has several groundbreaking advantages.
1. the returned material is of an industrial, rather than just scientific, quantity (over 10,000 tonnes vs ~10s of tonnes).
2. the “useless” material in the asteroid is gathered and expended as part of the asteroid’s propulsion system, allowing the returned asteroid to be considerably “purer” than a conventional asteroid retrieval mission.
3. the infrastructure used to convert and return the asteroid is reusable, and capable of continually returning asteroids to cislunar space.
Seedcraft asteroid mining
A seed craft is sent to an asteroid and begins to mine it and manufacture on it.
After 8 years, when the asteroid is ~50% hollowed out, the 750 kg electromagnetic bearing assembly is detached from the Seed Craft and transported by the robots to the opposite interior of the asteroid. The base is welded to the interior wall, with its drive axis parallel to the spin axis of the asteroid. As construction continues, surplus iron and nickel from the smelter are combined with the remaining alloying elements from the Seed Craft to produce Inconel powder.
During manufacturing, the Seed Craft has gradually used its own propulsion system to stabilize and orient the asteroid’s spin axis in the correct direction. The system must now wait for the Earth return window to open.
Slings built on asteroid by seed craft send rocks to propel the asteroid toward Earth
The Seed Craft, its decades long task complete, disengages from the asteroid and departs for its next target.
The slings, once set in motion, oscillate at a period of 2.1 seconds, and at the peak of their swing, the tips are traveling at 312 m/s, achieving the theoretical maximum velocity of the material. At the extreme of each swing, the tip of the sling passes close to the exit ports near the asteroid’s equator, where extremely strong rare Earth magnets on the tip of each sling adhere to a single 10 kg shot. The strength of the permanent magnet on the tip and the remnant magnetism if the shot is calibrated such that the adhesion strength is exceeded exactly at the full extension of the swing, where the centrifugal force is maximized, hurling the shot astern of the asteroid at 312 m/s, and imparting a small but non-trivial 13 microns/sec ΔV onto the asteroid. At full “throttle”, with all slings operating, the asteroid accelerates at a constant 11 micro-gs.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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