Robotic asteroid mining spacecraft wins a grant from NASA

Back in April, NASA once again put out the call for proposals for the next generation of robotic explorers and missions. As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, this consisted of researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs coming together to submit early studies of new concepts that could one-day help advance NASA’s space exploration goals.

One concept that was selected for Phase III of development was a breakthrough mission and flight system called Mini Bee. This small, robotic mining craft was designed by the Trans Astronautica (TransAstra) Corporation to assist with deep-space missions. It is hoped that by leveraging this flight system architecture, the Mini-bee will enable the full-scale industrialization of space as well as human settlement.

The Mini-bee concept is essentially a technology-demonstrator for a family of flight system architectures known as Asteroid Provided In-situ Supplies (Apis). These systems range in size from the experimental Mini Bee (which weighs 250 kg or 550 lbs) to the larger Honey Bee and Queen Bee – which would be capable of capturing asteroids measuring 10 and 40 m (33 and 130 ft) in diameter, respectively.

The Mini Bee utilizes a series of innovative technologies, which includes optical mining method of resource harvesting (aka. laser mining), a spacecraft architecture that relies on sunlight to enable faster spacecraft, and an asteroid containment system similar to the one that was proposed for NASA’s now-scrapped Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

Along with other Arpis concepts, the robotic spacecraft will use the water-based Omnivore solar thermal thruster to find its way around in Earth orbit or deep-space. This revolutionary technology concentrates vast amounts of sunlight into a reaction chamber where it then heats water and other volatile compounds (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, ammonia) harvested from asteroids for propellant.

This technology allows for greater flexibility since robotic missions would not need to transport all of their fuel with them and could rely on the same in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) process used to harvest resources to also procure fuel. In this respect, the Omnivore thruster is not unlike the World Is Not Enough (WINE), a steam-powered thruster currently being developed by Honeybee Robotics and the University of Central Florida (UCF).

The basic process employed by the Mini Bee is quite simple, but also highly sophisticated. Using the ARM Option A capture bag technology, the Mini Bee will secure a small piece of debris in space. Inflatable solar reflectors will power the optical mining beams, which will then be used to excavate the object (a process known as “spalling”), extract volatiles like water ice, and then store them aboard the spacecraft for transport.

To complete the Phase III process, TransAstra needs to push ahead with the development of their Optical Mining Test Bed (OMTB), demonstrate the effectiveness of the Omnivore thruster, the propellant feed system for the thruster, test the technology behind their inflatable solar reflectors, and integrate all of these systems together.

The company is also working on a variant called the Worker Bee, which is designed to serve as an orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) that could transport equipment and other payloads to high Earth orbits, the Moon, and maybe even Mars. These spacecraft would also rely on the omnivore thruster and would essentially be space tugs, providing services to NASA, commercial satellites, and maybe even tourists.

If and when TransAstra completes Phase III, the company will be in a position to propose Mini Bee to a mid-level NASA Technology Readiness Level (TRL) program. If all goes as planned, Mini Bee will validate key systems that could go into a fleet of robotic spacecraft providing everything from asteroid mining and resupply missions to orbital space rides.

The dream of industrializing space and providing affordable cislunar tourism would be one step closer!

Further Reading: NASA, TransAstra Corporation