Space mining could very well be the industry of the future, with companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries releasing preliminary plans on how they would mine minerals out of asteroids zipping around space.
NASA is also experimenting with cosmic mining, but unlike the private ventures, the space agency sees space mining technology as a way to further exploration and scientific discovery.
Researchers at NASA recently tested out a worker robot deemed RASSOR, for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (and pronounced “razor”).
RASSOR is very different from most other robots NASA has churned out. The agency is calling it a “blue collar robot.” Unlike the lab equipment-laden Curiosity, RASSOR leaves the delicate instruments at home.
Like WALL-E, its purpose is utilitarian, not scientific. It isn’t meant to explore, it’s meant to dig.
While RASSOR is far from space ready, the initial tests are promising. Built like a miniature tank, the prototype certainly looks hardworking.
"We were surprised at what we could do with it," said engineer Rachel Cox of the Kennedy Space Center.
The tank inspiration helps the small but sturdy RASSOR do its digging work.
"The lighter you make your robot, the more difficult it is to do this excavating," said A.J. Nick, another engineer on the RASSOR team. "We proved that if you engage one bucket, it pulls itself but when you lower the other bucket and rotate it, once they both catch in, it starts digging.”
NASA believes fuel and water could be produced from materials found in lunar soils. Harvesting the resources in space would make cosmic traveling cheaper and more efficient. RASSOR fits right into this mission.
"This has been kind of the dream, the mission they gear this around," Nick said.
Water could also be harvested from Martian ice, think scientists.
"There are some areas at the poles where they think there's a lot of ice, so you'd be digging in ice," Nick said. "There's other areas where the water is actually 30 centimeters down so you actually have to dig down 30 centimeters and take off the top and that depth is really where you want to start collecting water ice."
To be truly efficient, RASSOR would have to work about 16 hours a day for five years to yield enough useable resources from the Moon.
"Right now, we just want to make sure nothing in our design precludes it from doing that," said Jason Schuler, another RASSOR engineers.