Jun 8, 2016 | By Alec

Made In Space, the developer of zero-gravity 3D printing, is not exactly resting on its laurels. Back in March, the company sent its second version of their revolutionary zero-gravity 3D printer to the ISS, and it is already working on an even more ambitious follow-up project. With the help of an investigative NASA grant, Made In Space is working on the RAMA (Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata) project, which seeks to turn asteroids into flying mining outposts in space by robotically 3D printing harvested materials and building mechanical propulsion systems.

It’s a very ambitious concept that will likely take decades to complete, but could significantly contribute to breaking the material barrier that is preventing further space exploration. “Today, we have the ability to bring resources from Earth,” Made In Space co-founder and CTO Jason Dunn explained. “But when we get to a tipping point where we need the resources in space, then the 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.”

The core of this problem can be found in financial limitations, as every pound of materials costs thousands to send as far as the moon. If we are serious about reaching Mars, we need to be able to efficiently manufacture necessary equipment in space, which is exactly what 3D printing can offer NASA.  And, as several companies and space agencies around the world are looking to mine materials in space, why not combine the two? That is in a nutshell what RAMA is all about: a long-term plan to enable space colonization through off-Earth manufacturing. In Made In Space's vision, the asteroids will be flying mining stations that are slowly consumed to enable production.

To do so, we not only need to reach the asteroids with our 3D printers, but also take control of their flight patterns to deliver the harvested materials at specific locations. NASA itself is already studying near-Earth objects (NEOs) and looking at moving them into the Earth’s orbit, and Made in Space is taking that concept one step further. “We’re studying what it would take to turn asteroids into self-powered spacecraft,” Dunn reveals.

Concept art by Zoe Brinkley

Made In Space’s idea essentially revolves around ‘Seed Craft’, packaged robots with all the mining and 3D printing equipment necessary for the job. “On its maiden voyage, in the late 2030's, the RAMA Seed Craft will use electric propulsion and gravity assists to fly towards and intercept a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) known to be within only a dozen or so Lunar Distances (LD) of Earth,” Dunn explains on the Made in Space blog. “After safely rendezvousing with the asteroid, the Seed Craft begins harvesting raw materials from the NEA’s surface and subsurface using ISRU technologies pioneered by NASA.”

That material is automatically used to construct propulsion, navigation, energy-storage and other key systems with the help of 3D printing and other compact manufacturing tools. Over time, the galaxy is filled with autonomous mining aircraft, that can be programmed to fly towards a moon base, a Mars colony, or even to Earth. These converted asteroids could become a much more efficient solution than sending miners (or robots) to every single space rock and returning with their ore. “RAMA-1 would be programmed to slowly alter its path over time putting it on a new course to the Earth-Moon L5 point where asteroid mining activity is underway, and waiting for the RAMA-1 resources,” Dunn explains. “Once RAMA-1 charts its new orbital path, the RAMA Seed Craft is then sent to a new target asteroid.”

What’s more, these asteroids could become very basic spacecraft to make production as easy as possible. That means no rocket engines, fuel or complex electronic circuitry. Instead, Made In Space is envisioning relatively primitive mechanical engines that slowly create propulsion. Catapults could be launching boulders into space to influence the asteroid’s movement path, for instance. The computer would be analog, like the ancient Greeks’ Antikythera mechanism (below), which was used to chart the motion of heavenly bodies. “At the end of the day, the thing that we want the asteroid to be is technology that has existed for a long time. The question is, 'Can we convert an asteroid into that technology at some point in the future?'” Dunn said. “We think the answer is yes.”

Of course all of this is extremely ambitious, and you can wonder if it’s viable. Made In Space also acknowledges that significant advances in fields such as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) are needed to realize this. If all things go well, Dunn believes the project could be realized by the late 2030s – around the same time that space mining is expected to become a viable industry. He adds that the same technology could also have a huge impact on Earth, for instance as a construction tool.

To find out the potential of project RAMA, NASA has awarded the project with a Phase 1 grant from its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which focuses on projects for the future that won’t be operational for at least another decade. With the $100,000 grant, the company can finance nine months’ worth of initial feasibility studies. If that exploratory research is promising enough, a Phase 2 grant (worth $500,000) can be applied for. While time will tell if project RAMA is anything more than Sci-Fi, it certainly is the kind of efficient 3D printing concept that could reinvigorate space exploration.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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Russell Mills wrote at 6/9/2016 8:38:59 AM:

"Over time, the galaxy is filled with autonomous mining aircraft..." Please learn what the word "galaxy" means -- it doesn’t mean "solar system" or "asteroid belt". Other than that, thanks for the very interesting and informative article.

Ben Dova wrote at 6/8/2016 3:45:15 PM:

Been saying this for years

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