How to Turn an Asteroid Into a Spacecraft
It’s totally possible, and totally worth it.
There is a lot to imagine what the future of humanity will be moving toward in the 21st century, but — assuming the species does not experience a calamity of some sorts — most of those dreams are peppered with the prospect of people speeding off into outer space, to explore and conquer worlds unknown. But few people have realized space is a two-way street. The future of the species beyond Earth does not simply mean building ships that will take us elsewhere; it also means the potential to build things that bring space to us.
“We want to turn an asteroid into spacecraft,” Phil Metzger said at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium last August. Metzger was talking about Project RAMA: a scheme to essentially turn an asteroid into a mechanical machine capable of autonomously navigating through space towards specific destinations. That’s not even an exaggeration — that is literally the goal.
Obviously, the first question one has after they hear about something like this is what is the actual point in this. Metzger, a planetary physicist formerly based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, now working at the University of Central Florida and is a technical advisor for Project RAMA, told the NIAC Symposium the central benefit was to bring resources from vast distances to places closer and more easily accessible to human beings. This may include Earth’s orbit, colonies on other planets or moons, space stations, fuel and resource depots, or regions of the solar system where space miners are already situated.
Project RAMA is the brainchild of Jason Dunn, the CTO and co-founder of Made In Space. His company’s primary focus is to develop technologies that would make it possible to manufacture instruments and structures key to space exploration in outer space itself. The cost of launching things from the ground is enormous. It takes so much time and energy to build and fire a rocket capable of getting outside the Earth’s atmosphere. And while some like SpaceX have made great strides in proving the viability of reusable rockets, there is still a large cost that is irredeemable. The ability to build things in space itself would dramatically open up space travel and operations to a much wider bracket of the public and private sectors alike.
“We have this vision that as we move forward in space exploration, more and more of the things we need in space are manufactured there,” Dunn tells Inverse. “The ultimate idea is that we’re manufacturing those things in space using materials and resources that come from space itself. That, to us, is where space has to head for it to become a new place for people to live and for industry to find a way to thrive.”
Realizing such a vision means establishing a network of infrastructure that can move materials around. It’s not as if you can just build a giant space lasso that can wrangle resources over to you.
A few years ago, there were two different ideas Dunn and his colleagues at Made In Space had been discussing that seemed to converge and eventually meld into Project RAMA. The first was the notion of a self-replicating machine in space, along the lines of what great thinkers like John von Neumann and Freeman Dyson had previously played around with. “As a company building 3D printers for space, that’s always been fun to talk about.”
The other idea focused around asteroids and resources — how to find them, how to get to them, and how to mine them for resources.
“Of course the problem,” says Dunn, “is how to do you move an asteroid from its natural orbital location into one that’s a higher interest,” such as a Lagrange point parking orbit. “How do you make a very advanced robotic machine go into space and make more of itself?”
The answer, ostensibly, is quite a lot. So Dunn and his team started whittling down the concept into something much simpler: a simple, mechanical machine in space that’s also ginormous in size. The proposed solution was to build a version of the manufacturing technology the crew has been working on into what’s called a seed craft, which is capable of converting an asteroid into a giant mechanical machine, which can then fly back autonomously to points of interest.
“That was the beginning of Project RAMA,” says Dunn.
This isn’t just a weird dream drawn on a whiteboard in Made In Space’s office. Dunn and his team have pitched Project RAMA to NASA under the NIAC program, which offers researchers grants to conduct more in-depth studies on their very experimental proposals and demonstrate a proof of concept for some of the key technologies at hand.
Dunn and his team have just spent about nine months under a NIAC Phase I investigation trying to figure out just how feasible RAMA is, and they’re very encouraged by what they’ve learned so far. “If you compare what RAMA can do to all the other architectures that have been developed for moving an asteroid from one location to another, what we’ve found is that RAMA can allow for moving asteroids 100 times bigger than what is currently being conceived of,” he says.
The key reason is propulsion. RAMA’s technology doesn’t necessitate hauling huge amounts of propulsion to the asteroid in order to bring it closer to Earth or wherever. The seed craft converts the asteroid into a basic spacecraft that can fly itself using some of its own material for propulsion. Although that wipes out some of the asteroid’s resources from being harvested later, it’s still 100 times more than what other technologies could offer.
What exactly would that material be? It all depends on what kind of asteroid we’re talking about, but there’s an extraordinary potential to mine asteroids for precious metals rare on Earth, and fuel-dependent resources which could make space travel much more sustainable. Water in asteroids, for instance, could be extremely valuable, not just for allowing humans to survive in space, but for use as a potential source of propulsion.
The way RAMA would work depends, again, on the asteroid, but Dunn outlines what even the worst case option would be — an asteroid just made of rock and metal alloy, like iron. The seed craft would essentially hollow out the asteroid while producing thousands of “propellant shots,” which are basically rocky cannonballs. RAMA would also build several very big slings which operate almost like huge catapults. The asteroid self-propels by landing the catapults with these propellant shots, and flinging them out to impart a change in velocity in the opposite direction those shots are being fired in.
Obviously, the bigger the asteroid, the longer the mission takes. So far, the biggest asteroids the team has explored are on the order of 50 to 130 meters long. The seed craft also needs to possess enough power to convert a big ass space rock into a mechanical machine. It could take nearly a decade to fully convert an asteroid into a spacecraft which can maneuver itself to a suitable Lagrange point.
Learning that it was possible to move asteroids in this manner, however, is basically the key to making RAMA work. But there was another big solution Dunn and his team worked on that raised the potential behind this project for demonstrating how to actually find and identify asteroids of interests. To that end, the team used the NIAC funding to build a software called “Rock Finder,” which basically uses NASA on categorized and tracked near-Earth objects, and spits out answers relevant to what someone might be looking for a particular mission and its goals.
If you need a specific metallic asteroid by a particular date, Rock Finder will essentially build your mission design for you. It’s a tool no other party has ever developed. “This is exciting for us,” says Dunn, “because as our new report talks about, there are thousands and thousands more asteroids out there than we’ve ever found.”
Rock finder is critical to the idea of RAMA. When the seed craft finishes the conversion process, it moves to another asteroid, and then another. It’s in a perpetual state of work, able to convert as many asteroids as possible in succession. So while the entire process from launch to Lagrange might take a few decades, you could see multiple seed craft sending over many, many asteroids back to a closer proximity within a single time frame. Rock Finder is essential to this process because it can easily deduce the next target for the seed craft without much of a wait.
There is still a lot more to study before Project RAMA is even close to building a prototype. But based on the initial findings, Dunn and his team are very optimistic about how they push this concept forward and prove the constituent technologies are possible at a laboratory scale. And it falls exactly in line with what is already going on with Made In Space.
“Not only is it possible,” says Dunn, “it’s actually part of the same roadmap that Made In Space is build upon. Space has the resources we’re going to need for the future. We’d love to create something of a train line that continuously brings those resources to us. We can start planning the growth of humanity around that.”