Mechanical Engineering Assistant Research Professor Christopher Dreyer and Director of the Center for Space Resources Angel Abbud-Madrid in the Center for Space Resources Laboratory.

(Courtesy the Colorado School of Mines)

The Colorado School of Mines has a long history of proving new techniques to get stuff out of the ground. But now NASA has them aiming higher. Much higher. 

The space agency awarded grants to two researchers to continue their work on asteroid mining last month. 

Researchers Angel Abbud-Madrid and Christopher Dreyer want to use the focused light of the sun to get water and other useful materials out of space rocks. The technique, called optical mining, could be a game changer for space exploration. 

Why Bother Mining Asteroids?

Asteroids are space rocks that aren't big enough to rate as planets. There are millions of them in the solar system, and not just in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. NASA has found hundreds of asteroids near Earth since scientists realized one could destroy most life on Earth.

Angel Abbud-Madrid, who runs the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, thinks asteroids could help astronauts or space robots travel without bringing everything they need from home. 

"Think about this like gas stations in space," he says. "You can have an infrastructure of fuel depots or gas station so that those can serve to fuel spacecraft that are moving in the neighborhood of Earth."

How It Could Work

The idea of using focused sunlight to drive water or other useful chemicals out of an asteroid has one big advantage: it's light weight. Rather than taking heavy equipment into space that could drill into an asteroid, NASA would harness the sun's energy do the real work. 

To do that, a spacecraft would first inflate a bag around an asteroid. Sunlight would be focused like a laser onto the surface of the asteroid. That would drive water and other materials out of the space rock as vapor, which would then be frozen into another bag. That popsicle of useful space stuff could be taken where it's needed and turned into rocket fuel.

When Could It Happen?

Not anytime soon. The main NASA grant is for early stage research into the idea. The School of Mines is working with other private and university researchers to prove that optical mining could work. 

Even so, Abbud-Madrid says optical mining appears to be the most feasible and effective way to get useful material from asteroids. So maybe space mining isn't so out of this world.