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I was wondering whether there are any sound studies on mining in microgravity. For example, smelting iron (out of ore) in weightlessness has been described and (in theory) solved. Also, there are people working on, for example, excavators for the Lunar surface, which does have a noticeable field of gravity compared to microgravity one would experience near an average asteroid.

I am looking for studies on drilling, digging and rock blasting (or processes substituting the previous) on asteroids, which have a rather weak field of gravity. How can this be done? I am also interested in how the excavation material can be handled, if it was ever described.

EDIT: In Undo's answer, there is a link to a website. It includes the following statement: "Some studies adopted tunnelling to mine an asteroid." But it does not give any references. I would really be interested in such a study.

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There is one such article here, based on a NASA paper:

Most Earth mining depends upon gravity to hold the cutting edge against the ore. (However, for many Earth mining operations this is not enough, and other means are employed, e.g., cables and reels.) Scraping away at the surface of the asteroid requires holding the cutting edge against the outer surface of the asteroid. This would require either local harpoons or anchors imbedded into the surface of the asteroid, or cables or a net around the asteroid for the cutter to hold onto.

Mining an asteroid with a canopy

Strip mining would result in a lot of dirt being thrown up. An unconventional space mining method sees this not only as a problem but also as an opportunity. A canopy around the mining site can be used to collect ore purposely kicking up, the canopy shaped and rotating to use the centrifugal force to channel the ore to the perimeter for collection, as this NASA artwork shows.

enter image description here

If no canopy were put up, a lot of debris would cloud and cover the mining environment and probably interfere with mining operations. (Mining without a canopy would certainly be unacceptable in Earth orbit. Companies will most probably use a canopy also because the canopy would be quite profitable in terms of the amount of loose ore it would collect.)

I wasn't able to find any real studies on the subject, although the concept of using a canopy sounds quite promising.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice link, thanks. However, there is a downside. The text refers to studies without citing them. Well, if I am not mistaken, I know at least the source of the image - should be from "Space Resources – Materials", 1992, NASA SP-509, volume 3. $\endgroup$ – s-m-e Jul 19 '13 at 1:04
  • $\begingroup$ I'm having a hard time seeing where it refers to studies : ( $\endgroup$ – Undo Jul 19 '13 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I've rolled back the change because could not find that image in it. $\endgroup$ – J. Doe Aug 13 '18 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @J.Doe Figure 24 on page 118 (pdf page 135) it's much better quality, excellent find! go for it! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 13 '18 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ re: mining in Earth orbit: a bit pointless; the mining is bound to produce a plenty of useless refuse hauling which into Earth orbit seems pointless. Mining would most likely be combined with refinement right at the source to minimize the cargo mass. $\endgroup$ – SF. Aug 14 '18 at 7:33

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