While mining on earth is the focus of most Mines students, easily extracting resources in space may soon be a reality. NASA has awarded grants to two Mines researchers, Assistant Research Professor Christopher Dreyer and Director of the Center for Space Resources Angel Abbud-Madrid, to further investigate optical mining techniques.
“The optical mining concept is very exciting because it is a large-scale approach for producing resources in space,” Dreyer stated for Mines Newsroom. “We are contributing experimental evidence for the conditions under which intense light will disassemble carbonaceous chondrite asteroids.”
Students Alex Lampe and Travis Canney are working alongside Dreyer and Abbud-Madrid. Lampe, the head research assistant, got involved with the project in early 2015.
“The goal of this research is to show that extracting volatiles (H2O and CO2) from asteroids can be accomplished without the use of highly complicated mechanized systems,” Lampe explained.
“Our hope is to demonstrate that, by using focused sunlight, the asteroid regolith will de-volatilize at a high enough rate that it not only releases the chemically bound water and carbon dioxide, but also causes the regolith to spall,” Lampe furthers. Spalling is desired because it will cause fresh regolith to be exposed, allowing for continued extraction.
Another important focus of the research is to verify the practicality of trapping all of the vaporized volatiles. These extracted materials could theoretically be used as spacecraft propellants.
“After many years of dead-end investigations trying unsuccessfully to adapt terrestrial mining techniques to extract resources from asteroids in the future, we are excited to finally participate in the development of what we consider the most feasible and effective technique to recover valuable volatile elements, such as space propellants, from asteroids,” Dr. Abbud-Madrid stated in an interview with Space.com.
Currently, there is a variety of work being done in the lab to test optical mining methods more effectively. For example, at the beginning of the project, Lampe was responsible for reconditioning two vacuum chambers needed for high vacuum experimentation. Following that, he was tasked with designing and constructing the chassis for the ISRU Experimental Probe.
Because some of the mined resources can be used for fuel, the optical mining research project has the potential to revolutionize space travel.
“Imagine sending up payloads with only the outbound leg’s worth of fuel and refilling your tanks from resources already in space,” Lampe describes. “In comparison, if you think about taking a long road trip, it’s silly to consider bringing all of the gas with you. This could also soon be true for space travel.”
“If [optical mining is] proven to be feasible and applied properly, this technique could change the way humans approach space exploration forever,” Lampe asserts.
Above: Mechanical Engineering Assistant Research Professor Christopher Dreyer and Director of the Center for Space Resources Angel Abbud-Madrid in the Center for Space Resources Laboratory. Photo courtesy of the Colorado School of Mines Newsroom.