FUELSPACE

FuelSpace is a blog focusing on the emerging commercial space economy, space exploration, energy production, technology and innovation. We also cover the skills that enable great achievements in these areas including sales and persuasion, productivity, self-discipline, and leadership.

Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part II: Space Mining & Orbital Manufacturing

"Space-mining is getting serious"is not a phrase you may have anticipated hearing in your life. Yet today we actually see headlines like this regularly. It is well understood that in order to become a spacefaring civilization we must utilize the resources of space to enable our expansion into the solar system. We cannot get very far if we launch everything we need from Earth's surface. We must learn to use the vast resources of space to our advantage (aka space mining). In the private sector we saw a flurry of activity last year from both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, two well-funded space mining firms. Planetary Resources attempted to launch their first demonstration spacecraft, the A3. The A3 is a demonstration platform for the company's Arkyd space telescope. Unfortunately the rocket exploded shortly after lift-off, destroying the A3 prototype. Planetary Resources took the loss in stride and is now moving forward with an even more advanced model known as the A6.  Deep Space Industries established a new partnership with 3D printing experts Solid Prototypes and released plans for their robotic swarm mothership. While we love early phase private space mining ventures, they pale in comparison to actually landing spacecraft on celestial bodies. Which is exactly what the European Space Agency did when they landed the Philae probe on the surface of a comet..for the first time in human history!  Combined with the previous Hayabusa mission from Japanese space agency, this means humans have now landed robotic spacecraft on both an asteroid AND a comet. Not bad for a species that is only a 200,000 years young. For the icing on the cake, we saw major announcements from both Russia and China regarding plans to launch space mining programs in the near future, as well as a new UK based private venture to begin mining the moon. The important thing to remember is this: it is no longer science fiction to discuss business plans for space mining.  We will soon begin developing orbital fueling depots using water mined from asteroids and comets. These are real business concepts now, backed by some of the most competent and wealthy people and nations in world. Hang on to your hats folks, space mining is just around the corner.

A space-mining operation as envisioned by Deep Space Industries.  Image Credit: Deep Space Industries

A space-mining operation as envisioned by Deep Space Industries.  Image Credit: Deep Space Industries

An orbital fueling depot fed by by an asteroid mine.  Awesome Image Credit: Deep Space Industries. 

An orbital fueling depot fed by by an asteroid mine.  Awesome Image Credit: Deep Space Industries. 

The Arkyd Space Telescope is designed to hunt for water and minerals hidden in asteroids in deep space.  Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

The Arkyd Space Telescope is designed to hunt for water and minerals hidden in asteroids in deep space.  Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

Orbital Manufacturing has Begun

If we can land spacecraft on an asteroid or a comet, then we have the foundation to gather and transport raw materials in space. However, we need a way to transform these materials into usable structures, and therein lies the potential of space-based 3D printing. 3D printing is a transformative technology for almost every industry on Earth, but its single greatest impact may be unlocking the potential of the solar system. Once we can print objects in orbit, on the moon, or on an asteroid, then we begin to see a path to large scale space construction projects and a sustainable presence in space. Combine low-gravity and zero gravity printing technology with remotely operated robotics, and we can build almost anything imaginable in space. We saw the first step towards the future of orbital manufacturing in late 2014 when the first low-gravity 3D printer was delivered to the ISS by Made in Space, a private company based in Mountain View, CA. The first object to be manufactured? A replacement printer head for the 3D printer...brilliant.  

The first low-gravity 3D printing system is now fully operational on board the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA

The first low-gravity 3D printing system is now fully operational on board the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA

3D printing and robotics will be the foundation of all future space construction projects.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

3D printing and robotics will be the foundation of all future space construction projects.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

Next week we will take a look at the business of space and how investments in this industry are reaching unprecedented levels. Subscribe below to have part III sent directly to your inbox

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