How We Want to Turn Asteroids Into Spacecraft

Artist Concept of an Asteroid Spacecraft created by the RAMA architecture. Artwork by Zoe Brinkley.

It’s funny, because even in the space industry, it isn’t every day that you get to work on a really far reaching idea. At Made In Space the vast majority of our engineering energy goes to concepts that will be operational hardware within 5 years. We like to talk about the future a lot, and there is a great deal of whiteboard engineering of what space colonies will look like or what the constraints to manufacturing on Enceladus would be. But we don’t usually get to work directly on the long term stuff. Thanks to the NIAC program, we’ll be doing some of that work.

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awards research grants with the intent of studying out-of-the-box ways that space exploration might be done differently. Most of the focus is longer horizon stuff that would be operational on 10+ year timescales. Made In Space recently proposed a new vision for exploring and using asteroids and was awarded a NIAC grant. This is what we proposed.

For several decades, missions have been conceived for utilization of deep space outposts at Earth-Moon libration points and at lunar orbit.

In 1974, Gerard O’Neill proposed the installation of space colonies and manufacturing plants at the Earth-Moon L5 point. Others, including the L5 Society, have gone on to describe solar power satellite farms that could be developed at these libration points to provide an off-world economy of power production and supply to Earth. Soon, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will enter early design and development phases to robotically deliver a multi-ton asteroid boulder safely to lunar orbit where human crew can rendezvous and collect samples, returning an unprecedented amount of asteroidal material back to Earth.

These concepts are as exciting as they are various.

In all the scenarios, one thing remained fixed — the need for space resources at the outpost.

To meet this need, many architectures have been proposed. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission calls for a solar electric power tug to deliver asteroid-derived materials, while O’Neill suggested launching resources from the lunar surface to the location of interest.

At Made In Space, we are approaching the delivery of space resources to deep space outposts in a different way. One which is scalable, cost effective, and ensures that the abundant material wealth of the inner solar system becomes readily available to humankind in a near automated fashion. We’re exploring the “RAMA” architecture, which turns asteroids into basic spacecraft capable of moving themselves to useful locations in space.

Project RAMA — Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata, is designed to leverage future advances of additive manufacturing (AM) and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) to realize enormous efficiencies in asteroid redirect missions.

In other words, we’re studying what it would take to turn asteroids into self-powered spacecraft.

A Mission Worth Studying

A core aspect of the NIAC program is being able to describe proposed concepts in a mission context. While we have many different mission ideas for the RAMA architecture, we really like the idea of the following mission description:

On its maiden voyage, in the late 2030's, the RAMA Seed Craft will use electric propulsion and gravity assists to fly towards and intercept a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) known to be within only a dozen or so Lunar Distances (LD) of Earth.

After safely rendezvousing with the asteroid, the Seed Craft begins harvesting raw materials from the NEA’s surface and subsurface using ISRU technologies pioneered by NASA.

The Seed Craft will refine the raw material as needed and use the resulting feedstock to begin manufacturing necessary mechanical components.

An asteroid converted into a giant mechanical spacecraft could one day fly itself to a mining outpost. Artwork by Brad Kohlenberg

As components are made and qualified they are integrated into a large, complex design which includes subsystems for mechanically driven GNC, attitude control, propulsion, energy storage, and autonomous navigation.

Eventually, the asteroid itself becomes an autonomous, mechanical, free-flying spacecraft; designated RAMA-1. RAMA-1 would be programmed to slowly alter its path over time putting it on a new course to the Earth-Moon L5 point where asteroid mining activity is underway, and waiting for the RAMA-1 resources.

Once RAMA-1 charts its new orbital path, the RAMA Seed Craft is then sent to a new target asteroid to begin conversion of RAMA-2 and so on until the Seed Craft’s end of life (see: the image at the beginning of this article).

What We’re Funded To Do Now

Made In Space is currently funded by NASA to do the initial Phase I work. This means that for the next 9 months we will begin the initial studies to determine the feasibility of the RAMA concept.

As an early stage concept, the bulk of our work is focused on building a stronger mission plan and better understanding how analog mechanisms could be used to control an asteroid.

Our goal is that in 9 months we will be able to describe this new architecture for asteroid missions in strong detail, with a path forward outlining technologies that need investment (both advanced manufacturing and resource utilization) to make the RAMA plan come to life.

Why It Is Important To Work On Far Out Concepts

Finding a research topic that fits the NIAC program’s focus is not an easy task. It takes a mix of a strong technological concept merged with a pinch of science fiction.

For us, we found inspiration in the idea of space-based automata, like Jon von Neumann’s Self Replicating Machines and Freeman Dyson’s Astrochicken. These technological concepts have been examined for decades, with many different ideas for how they may one day be turned into reality.

With Project RAMA we put a new spin on the idea of self-replicating space machines by supposing that these automata will be the simple computing and transport machines, only on a massive, asteroid-scale.

The Antikythera Mechanism. Constructed in 200BC, is the worlds oldest analog computer.

How simple can one of these automata get? Our designs are based on technologies that have existed for thousands of years. The Antikythera Mechanism, shown to the left, is thought to be the worlds oldest analog computer dating back to the second century BC. This device charted the path of the stars and planets to incredible accuracy and still baffles researchers to how it was designed and constructed so long ago.

Sure, turning an entire asteroid into something akin to the Antikythera Mechanism sounds like something out of science fiction. In fact, the name itself, RAMA, was inspired from Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. But cool technologies have long been inspired by crazy visions of the future — made real by teams ready to take on a daunting new challenge.

For Made In Space, projects like RAMA that exist somewhere near the edges of our product roadmaps help drive all our closer term work in the right direction. For all of us in the US, we are lucky to have an agency like NASA, which has the vision to continue to fund NIAC and other programs that will define the future resiliency of our species.

I’m Jason Dunn. I am the Co-founder & CTO of Made In Space. I like shockwaves, space robots, and long walks on lunar beaches. Reach out to me if you would like to talk about the commercial future of the places beyond our gravity well.