It is no secret that asteroid mining has passed from science fiction to something that both NASA and private industry are dreaming about as a killer app to opening up the high frontier of Space. According to Space.com, a company called Made in Space, with a $100,000 study contract from the space agency, is looking for a way to seize asteroids and turn them into spacecraft that would fly to mining stations, say in cis-lunar space or perhaps in Mars orbit. They would be stripped of resources that would then be used for space manufacturing.

The way that the scheme would work is that seed spacecraft would be sent to asteroids. The seed craft would mine material in situ using 3D printing to build navigation and propulsion systems. The propulsion system would shoot ground up rock from the asteroid to move the asteroids to where they are needed.

Everything would be mechanical, even the navigation computer, which would more resemble the ancient Greek device called the Antikythera than a modern electronic device. The propulsion system would be like a catapult rather than a chemical rocket.

The entire arrangement seems at once retro and high-tech.

Made In Space has already proven the efficacy of 3D printing in microgravity, thanks to experiments already performed on the International Space Station. Combining that technology with resource extraction could be the system that sparks a new industrial revolution beyond Earth.

The mining stations would not only strip the asteroids of useful materials but would feed them to manufacturing facilities to build useful products.

The products could then be shipped either to colonies on the moon or Mars or even directly to Earth.

The space age started as a pure government affair, with the United States and the Soviet Union racing one another to the moon, spending tens of billions of dollars for science and political prestige. Those two motive still exist, but the growth of the commercial space sector has added the profit motive to the mix.

Resources, not only on asteroids but the moon constitute untold wealth that is waiting for the taking, the engine for realizing the centuries-old dream of space exploration and settlement.

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