A Coordinated Research Program to Develop the Technology to Optical Mine Asteroids


Optical Mining is an approach to excavate volatile rich asteroids; drive water and other valuable volatile materials from the excavated material; and collect the volatiles for use as propellants and feedstocks for mission consumables. Optical Mining is part of an in situ resource utilization (ISRU) mission architecture called Apis (Asteroid Provided In Situ Systems) which includes Honey Bee mining vehicles and Worker Bee space tugs. In the Honey Bee mining vehicles, the asteroid or large boulder is enclosed in a thin-film bag to minimize the need for complex robotic material handling and excavation equipment. Highly concentrated sunlight is delivered to the surface of the asteroid using non-imaging optics and lightweight, thin-film deployable reflectors. The concentrated sunlight spalls the surface, continually exposing new material while heating the spall particles to extreme temperatures, thereby releasing the volatiles. Released volatiles are subsequently thermally separated and collected in geometrically large but lightweight thin-film cold traps at temperatures controlled to sort specific molecular species into specific containers, each held at the correct temperature to store the collected material as a solid. This paper summarizes results of a coordinated experimental and analytical program to develop Optical Mining and enable the Apis architecture. Efforts described in this paper include subscale tests and demonstrations of the Optical Mining process on 2 to 5 cm diameter samples of meteorites and asteroid simulants; developmental work on a solar thermal oven simulator to conduct fundamental and applied work on kilogram sized samples; an engineering demonstration of Optical Mining of a kilogram sized sample of asteroid simulant; analytical modeling of optical excavation; and analytical work assessing the magnitude of resources available and discoverable in highly Earth-like heliocentric orbits.

Meeting Name

15th Biennial International Conference on Engineering, Science, Construction, and Operations in Challenging Environments, Earth and Space (2016: Apr. 11-15, Orlando, FL)


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering

Keywords and Phrases

Earth (planet); Excavation; Food products; Materials handling; Orbits; Concentrated sunlights; Deployable reflectors; Excavated materials; Excavation equipment; Extreme temperatures; Heliocentric orbits; In-situ resource utilizations; Mission architectures; Asteroids

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Document Type

Article - Conference proceedings

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© 2016 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Apr 2016