September 25, 2015 – Two researchers from the Colorado School of Mines have been awarded NASA grants to work on an “out-of-this-world” extraction technique called optical mining. Mechanical Engineering Assistant Research Professor Christopher Dreyer and Director of the Center for Space Resources Angel Abbud-Madrid are developing novel technologies to obtain valuable resources from asteroids, which can be used as rocket propellants.
Optical mining will use concentrated solar energy to heat and fracture asteroids. Water and other volatiles will then be extracted from the excavated material into an enclosing inflatable bag. Studies show that up to 100 metric tons of water can be extracted from an accessible near Earth asteroid and delivered to Lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit (LDRO) or other depot location.
This proposed method is designed to create an industrial revolution in space in which propellant and other consumables for commercial processes in space are supplied from near Earth asteroids instead of from the surface of the Earth.
“The optical mining concept is very exciting because it is a large-scale approach for producing resources in space that can be attempted soon,” Dreyer said. “We are contributing experimental evidence for the conditions under which intense light will disassemble carbonaceous chondrite asteroids.”
Mechanical engineering student Alexander Lampe and engineering physics student Travis Canney are helping with this research by preparing vacuum chambers for experiments, designing the test matrix, writing experimental procedures and running tests.
This research project is funded by a $500,000 grant for “Laboratory Demonstration and Test of Solar Thermal Asteroid ISRU,” by the NASA Early Stage Innovations program and a $125,000 grant for “Demonstration of Optical Mining for Excavation of Asteroids and Production of Mission Consumables,” by the NASA Small Business Innovation Research program.
Mines researchers are working in this multidisciplinary effort with Missouri University of Science and Technology Professor Leslie Gertsch (Mines alumna GE ’82, PhD ‘89) and TransAstra Corporation Founder & Principal Engineer Joel Sercel. Other research participants include the University of Hawaii.