Making a spacecraft out of astroids

An asteroid space ship may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but one company is working to make it a reality. Reporter Andrea Vasquez speaks to chief technology officer and co-founder of “Made in Space,” Jason Dunn, via Google hangout.

TRANSCRIPT

An asteroid spaceship may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but one company is working to make it a reality.

Up next, reporter Andrea Vasquez speaks to chief technology officer and co-founder of Made in Space, Jason Dunn, via Google Hangout.

Jason Dunn, thanks so much for joining us.

I'm glad to be here.

Great.

So, you are working on a project to, basically, turn existing asteroids into kind of, low-tech spaceships.

But let's back up first and talk about what the issue is that even necessitates that.

Why can't we just keep sending stuff up from Earth?

The answer... It's a really good question.

And that was... That question is really what drove me and my friends to create the company that we started, called Made in Space.

Six years ago, we were looking at this problem of, how do we -- how do we really move out beyond Earth?

How will people, one day, settle anywhere in space?

And what we realized is that we have been doing space almost exactly the same way for the past 55 years.

We've been using the same, essential, rocket technology to launch everything off of the surface of Earth and send it into space.

We're at the bottom of what we call a gravity well.

Earth has this well of gravity that we have to escape out of.

And it takes a tremendous amount of energy to leave the gravity well and get into space.

So the idea of space manufacturing is, if I can build things in space and not have to bring the -- the raw materials from Earth, now I've really changed the equation.

And I can start to rethink how to do space exploration.

And you've started to do that.

And -- not you, but other space scientists have started to do that with 3D printing and look into the possibilities of making what you can't pack with you.

What kinds of options does that open up?

In 2014, Made in Space put a 3D printer on the space station.

So that was our, like, our first initiative of bringing space manufacturing to fruition.

So astronauts can get tools that they need at a moment's notice.

Anybody around the planet can put hardware into space without launching it on a rocket.

And that, to us, is the first stepping stone towards a future where more and more and more is manufactured in space rather than on Earth.

So what we're looking at today is both the near term -- how do you build things in space that are usable today?

But also the long term.

When we can have, you know, the resources from an asteroid to manufacture with, what will we build?

How will we build it?

So it's a really exciting company.

We get to think about the far-off visions of the future and work on some really, really cool technology that is happening today.

And one of those projects for the future is this RAMA project that NASA just has funded you with.

Can you explain what that is and how, exactly, you're going to launch an asteroid?

So, NASA has a really interesting program called NIAC.

It's the, um, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program.

And what they do is they look at studying ideas that really no one has ever thought of and -- and trying to put some -- some, uh, science behind it.

Is this possible?

Is this idea possible?

Surely, people have thought a lot about how would you move an asteroid from where it currently exists to a more interesting location, let's say a mining outpost.

And they -- they've always done it with the conventional technology.

Let's bring a rocket engine to the asteroid and -- and drag it with a spacecraft inside of a net or something.

So at Made at Space, we were thinking about, 'Well, what are the other options?

How else could you move an asteroid from one place to another?'

This one thing that excites us a lot is the idea of self-replicating machines because a 3D printer is, essentially, a self-replicating machine.

If it can build another 3D printer, and then that printer builds another 3D printer, it goes on forever.

And we like this, you know, the nerd -- nerds in us at the company like the idea of, um, sending 3D printers into space that build more 3D printers.

And when we're talking about these self-replicating machines, there still needs to be a person there involved in starting those processes and putting those things together.

Is that right?

It's not an automatic process?

What we're designing right now is a spacecraft, what we call a Seed Craft.

It's build here on the ground by humans, launched from Earth to an asteroid.

But the Seed Craft has some very advanced 3D printing techniques onboard.

And then it itself starts to convert the asteroid into the mechanical spacecraft.

Just on its own accord once it senses something that is the proper material and size?

Right.

So we're taking a simulated lunar dirt called a regolith simulant.

And we're taking that.

And we're putting it through a special 3D printer and actually building functional parts.

And there are some applications for this on Earth, you said, as well.

What can some of the findings from this research and this R&D help with back here on Earth in our gravity well?

What we're looking at is a, you know, fully automated technology that can go anywhere and turn the natural resources into something more usable.

So you could imagine robots one day building shelters in, you know, the developing world or maybe for disaster relief.

You could have pipelines being fixed automatically.

There's all kinds of really interesting things that you could do as soon as you can just send really smart robots out into the field that can turn the environment into something more useful.

And about how far away would we be from some of those sorts of things?

We're looking at a mission that could exist in, like, the late 2030s.

We're really looking out there.

Um, but what we're doing with NASA today is we're building a road map of technologies.

If we're going to get to this mission in 2035, we need to start investing in all of these new technologies so that by the time we can do the mission, we've developed the right technologies.

We're laying the groundwork already.

Jason Dunn, thanks again for joining us.

Thank you, Andrea.