These are the voyages of the rockship Asteroid …
Would you watch a TV show or movie which began with that refrain? Would you volunteer to be a crew member on a spaceship made from an asteroid? A company with the catchy name Made in Space wants to do something close to that. It announced plans to turn asteroids into autonomous spacecrafts and it has NASA’s backing to make it happen. How? Fans of steampunk science fiction will love this idea.
Made In Space’s design for an asteroid spacecraft combines robotics, 3D-printing and space mining. The first step of Project RAMA (Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata) will be to send a robotic ship dubbed the “Seed Craft” to a carefully selected asteroid which has the necessary raw materials for spacecraft building and the proper size to be turned into said spacecraft.
Once the raw materials are mined by the Seed Craft, step two involves using its onboard advanced 3D printer to turn them into all of the parts necessary for assembly into propulsion, navigation, fuel storage and other spaceship equipment. That’s where steampunk comes into play.
Out of necessity driven by time and the limitation of robotics, the asteroid-to-starship components and systems will have to be simple, possibly resembling the primitive-yet-effective mechanical machines of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, which inspired steampunk novelists like Philip Pullman and Scott Westerfeld. The computer might be analog and the propulsion system could be a Newtonian Third Law of Motion design involving launching rocks from one end to propel it in the opposite direction. And if the space rock has ice, the asteroid ship’s motto could be “Have Water, Will Steam.”
Once the robotic asteroid ship is operational, its mission will be to propagate the species by traveling to another space rock and repeating the process. The end result could be a fleet of asteroid ships heading to Mars to assist in the development of a new colony.
NASA thinks enough of the idea to invest $100,000 in seed money in the Seed Craft. Made in Space provides the 3D printer experience – it developed the two 3D printers currently operating on the International Space Station. That’s the easy part. Landing anything on an asteroid is a challenge, as the Rosetta mission proved. And space in-situ resource utilization – a fancy term for “scrounging” – is feasible but untested.
Reconstituting asteroids into mechanical automata is still many years away (although Mechanical Automata would be a great name for a band today). Is using old and new technology to turn an old rock into a new machine an old or new idea? Can it work? If it does, someday we may strive …
… to boldly go where no rock has gone before.