NASA, in collaboration with long-time partner Honeybee Robotics, is working on humanity’s first space shotgun to blast asteroids out of the sky (and collect samples and stuff like that).
The effort is part of the space agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which has research applications and is NASA’s current token effort to protect the earth from NEOs (near-earth objects) which may stray too close to the planet’s orbit, which in theory might require blasting one of those rocks off its trajectory.
“Collecting and characterizing samples from asteroids is an important science goal in itself, and NASA has identified it as a key step toward human exploration of Mars,” said Kris Zacny, Honeybee’s VP & Director of Exploration Technology.
The gun would be attached to an ARV, or asteroid redirect vehicle, and move in close to an asteroid in order to shoot off chunks of the rock to be brought back to Earth for closer analysis. Samples would be dragged into Earth’s or the Moon’s orbit so that local probes will be able to collect and analyze them more easily. The gun will use bullets (not lasers as we all might prefer) to test the density and composition of a given stone.
A mission planned for the early 2020s is hoping to take a chip off the blocks known as Bennu, Itokawa and 2008 EV5.
The gun might benefit from the vacuum of space, as without another force (like air) holding a projectile back, it can continue to pick up speed after it is shot. Larger concepts, like electromagnetic coiling guns known as Mass Drivers, have been proposed to launch objects already in space for quicker travel, like sending payloads back to Earth.
Why the focus on asteroids?
Asteroids have long interested planetary scientists and space researchers. Much is speculated about the general geologic composition of asteroids, though they are widely believed to be leftover building blocks of planets, meaning they are awash with different minerals. That has led to the founding of several space mining startups that envision future exploitation of asteroid resources. Just last month, an asteroid flew close to Earth speculated to have more platinum embedded within than has ever been mined on Earth.
Honeybee has contributed on several Martian probes and is also looking to enter the asteroid mining industry.
Check out how their new gun works in the video below: