Credit: TransAstra

Credit: TransAstra

A demonstration of asteroid mining technology was conducted November 12 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

According to Joel Sercel of TransAstra Corporation, initial large scale testing of Optical Mining was completed — an innovative approach for extracting rocket propellants from asteroids that could soon make space rocks ubiquitous refueling stations for NASA astronauts and private sector industrial operations in space.

Large solar furnace at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico was used to shed light on the idea of asteroid mining. Credit: Drew Hamilton, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico

Large solar furnace at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico was used to shed light on the idea of asteroid mining.
Credit: Drew Hamilton, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico

The tests completed made use of up to 12 kilowatts of highly intense solar energy, thanks to the Army’s giant solar concentrator system. That hardware focused solar energy for up to minutes at a time onto a 4-inch circle on the surface of materials designed to simulate the properties of volatile rich asteroids.

Solar beam

“During the tests the simulants were inside of a cooled vacuum chamber behind a ¾-inch thick window constructed of purified fused quartz. The highly intense solar energy can easily melt stainless steel, but it passed through the quartz window with no apparent ill effect and transmitted its power to the stimulants inside the vacuum chamber,” Sercel told Inside Outer Space.

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“The solar beam was observed to begin to drill into the surface of the asteroid simulant…releasing significant quantities of water and presumably other volatile materials,” Sercel reports. “The composition of fluids released other than water will be determined in post test analysis in the coming weeks.”

These effluents from the intense solar thermal reaction, Sercel adds, were successfully collected in a cryogenically cooled trap which has been designed to mimic an approach that could be used inexpensively in space to collect the gases released by the optical mining process.

 Frost on the cryogenic cold trap immediately after it was removed from the vacuum chamber is water and other volitile chemicals previously trapped in the rock, but released by the heat of 2000 Suns at temperatures potentially as high as 3500 ºF.   Credit: TransAstra


Frost on the cryogenic cold trap immediately after it was removed from the vacuum chamber is water and other volitile chemicals previously trapped in the rock, but released by the heat of 2000 Suns at temperatures potentially as high as 3500 ºF.
Credit: TransAstra

Unlimited resource

Sercel and TransAstra benefited by support from both NASA with its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, SBIR and ESI programs, and private sector investors that enabled the test.

“TransAstra Corporation is a new kind of aerospace company built on the belief that the future of humanity lies beyond the planetary surface,” Sercel said. “The asteroids represent a virtually unlimited resource for our species and the time has come to use these stepping stones to space for exploration, industrialization, and settlement beyond the Earth.”

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