In just a matter of decades, asteroids may be flying into mining outposts throughout space. At least that’s what a California company known as Made in Space would like to see. They were recently funded by NASA in order to investigate how to begin turning asteroids into massive, autonomous spacecrafts.
The project is called RAMA, which stands for Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata is the company’s long term plan to enable space colonization by making off-Earth manufacturing efficient and something that is economically viable.
Made in Space co-founder and chief technology officer Jason Dunn says today we have the ability to bring resources from Earth but when we get to a tipping point where we need resources from space, then the question becomes where are they going to come from, how will we get them and how do we go about delivering them to the location they are needed.
The company plans to send advanced robotic “Seed Crafts” to rendezvous with a succession of near-Earth asteroids in space. The Seed Craft will harvest materials from space rocks and then use them to construct propulsion, navigation and energy-storage onsite with the help of 3D printing. The asteroids would then be programmed to fly to mining stations where they are required. This would work far better than launching new probes to every single space rock that is going to be explored.
These converted asteroids would not look similar to traditional spacecrafts. They would be completely mechanical and relatively primitive. Dunn says at the end of the day the team would like the asteroids to contain technologies that have been around for quite some time. The main question they face today is whether they will be able to convert an asteroid into that technology at some point in the future.
Project RAMA involves autonomous 3D printers that use mechanically driven systems that already exist, so the project would not be started from scratch. Major advancements in in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) are required for the technology to become a reality. Made in Space is counting on NASA to push ISRU technology, as extremely advanced ISRU tech will be vital for astronauts on Mars and other off-Earth outposts.
The timeline of RAMA is not known at this time, but there is speculation that it may take a minimum of 20 years for the necessary technology to be developed. The first Seed Craft may reach the ground in the last 2030s, just as asteroid-mining and off-Earth manufacturing begin to come into their own. Dunn anticipates that RAMA architecture holds a lengthy timeline and will become available just at the time when the resources are needed the most.
Project RAMA may also have a handful of applications on planet Earth, with machines very similar to Seed Craft having many jobs throughout the planet, such as infrastructure in remote locations. The machines may also allow for conversions of resources into helpful devices and mechanical machines, solving some pretty large problems that we have on the planet, including housing and construction that would hold the potential to make peoples’ lives a lot better.