Tuesday, January 12, 2016

THREE D PRINTING SCRAPBOOK: ASTEROID MINING

This article caught my eye, as it did a number of you as well, and I suspect it may have caught yours for reasons similar to why it did mine. It's straightforward enough, and in an era when we've come to expect a "slow drip and dribble" of information concerning new technologies, new space ventures, new commercial ventures and even new types of financial systems, it's not all that exciting. It's what is not being said in it that I find intriguing, and it's that "hidden not-being-said" component that forms the kernel of today's high octane speculations:
Asteroid-Mining Company 3D-Prints Object from Space Rock Metals
The story is simple enough:
Planetary Resources, which aims to extract water and other useful materials from asteroids, has 3D-printed an object using metal powder gleaned from a space rock.
"It is the first part ever 3D-printed with material from outer space and is reminiscent of a design that could originate from a 3D printer in the zero-gravity environment of space," Planetary Resources representatives wrote in a blog post Thursday (Jan. 7) about the object, which is about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) tall by 3.4 inches (8.7 cm) wide and weighs 8.8 ounces (250 grams). [10 Ways 3D-Printing May Transform Space Travel]
"The asteroid (or meteorite) used for the print materials was sourced from the Campo Del Cielo impact near Argentina, and is composed of iron, nickel and cobalt — similar materials to refinery-grade steel," they added.
At one level, what we're looking at is a very simple "proof of concept" experiment: can three-d printing conceivably be used to manufacture things from materials gained from asteroids? Answer, well,apparently , yes. But we knew this already. In fact, if one goes back over various space stories and additive manufacturing stories of the past few years, there really is nothing new here, nor is this really more than the most rudimentary "proof of concept" experiment. Indeed, some would and could argue that it's nowhere near that. To do a real proof of concept experiment, one would have to perform it on an asteroid. As it is, it is more of an advertising and "promotion of meme" stunt. So why keep putting out such stories?
One answer is simply to keep driving the memes of space and of additive manufacturing or three-D printing, and to entice people into pursuing careers and making realities of the current hopes for space commercialization. But - and here comes my high octane speculation- I suspect that the rash of stories quietly circumventing recently (the recent decision of Mr. Putin to turn the Russian space agency into a government corporation for example), mean much more. It's the timing here of this story that interests me, in other words, and what it portends. When I have commented previously on asteroid mining, I've pointed out that the technology for getting to and from asteroids with any sort of efficiency and profitability simply cannot be based upon chemical rockets. They are simply inadequate to the task. To be sure, there were dubious artists' renditions of giant "space tea cups" designed to scoop up an asteroid and propel it to some place to "mine" it. Once has only to look at such renditions to see the gap between the stated goals and the realities with available and publicly known technologies.
But this raises the other technological issue. Assuming one could make asteroid mining profitable with chemical rockets, what technology exists for actually mining it, for reducing those metals to the powders needed by an additive manufacturing process to make things from it? There have been technologies developed to take soil samples and even to do chemical experiments on space probes, but this, again, is a far cry from what would be needed to make actual mining profitable. One needs not simply scoops on space probes and a few chemicals to reduce a relatively small sample for experiments, but an industrial scale technology that can conceivably be space based.
This was what sprung to my mind when I read this article. In my book Saucers, Swastikas, and Psyops I wrote briefly about the adaptation of earth-based boring and tunneling machines for use on the Moon, in studies dating back to the 1960s, conducted both by NASA and the American military. Thus, I suspect one thing we are going to see this coming year and in years to come, is the expansion of articles concerning the development of practical technologies of sufficient economy of scale, to make space commercialization in the form of asteroid mining a viable enterprise, both on the part of the practicalities of getting to them to mine them in the first place, and then being able to perform the mining and separation of minerals once there. Like many people, I suspect such technologies already exist, and perhaps may even be in use. It's the slow drip, such as we see in this article, that will increase to a trickle.
if I'm right, 2016 will see the increase of such stories from a drip to a trickle. If I'm wrong, we can all have a good laugh this time next year.

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