In continued efforts to boldly go where no human has gone before, scientists are on the brink of a revolutionary breakthrough: mining asteroids to harvest water. Funded by a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts fellowship, Apis (Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies plan) has created a patent-pending innovation dubbed “optical mining” which could tap into bountiful amounts of water from asteroids.
The goal would be to utilize this asteroid water to provide handy and cheap propellant for spacecrafts and vehicles, drastically reducing the hefty cost of space travel and exploration. Sorry all you bottled water nuts out there, you won’t be buying fresh, natural asteroid water at your local grocery store anytime soon.
Working alongside NASA’s in-progress missions on Mars and the Moon, Apis is crafting a business model for their asteroid mining venture, hoping to aid and expand the scope of space travel for both manned and robotic explorations of our solar system.
The optical mining process involves excavating carbonaceous chondrite asteroid surfaces to extract water and other elements from it into sealed, inflatable bags without the use of heavy robotic machinery. A process called spalling, where tiny, explosive pops of expanding gas push out volatiles within rocks, including water, is the foundation for Apis’s optical mining technique. They believe that concentrated amounts of sunlight (obviously free and readily available in space) can be harnessed by their giant solar furnace located in New Mexico to perform the mining.
The resources extracted from these asteroids can then be used to provide consumables and propellant for space missions, Joel Sercel, principal investigator of Apis, said in an interview with Space.com. With targets set on a near-Earth asteroid, Apis hopes to extract 100 metric tons of water from it using their developed technique and a lone SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to ferry the extracted material to lunar orbit and other depot locations.
If all this technical mumbo jumbo sounds a little heady and farfetched, the lovely people over at Apis put together a detailed account of their process into an infographic, explaining and simplifying their research for us non-rocket scientists. Water is a building block of life, and the reasoning behind space exploration is to learn about the genesis of ours and potentially discover other signs of life amongst the stars. Mining water from asteroids could hold the key to producing beneficial amounts of the necessary element in space, helping push human reach to a galaxy far, far away.