Material Separation Will be Key for Long Term Space Travel

Material Separation Will be Key for Long Term Space Travel

Brian Wang |
September 16, 2019 |

Many manufacturing industries currently use material separation due to the need to recycle and reuse materials, both from a commercial and environmental need. The material separation process has become so in demand that a whole industry has grown around it.

It is not just on Earth where the manufacturing sector looks to separate materials for reuse. Space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) look to recycle and reuse materials as much as possible. This extends beyond air and water to structural components.

With this in mind, let’s look at how material separation may be both a driver for space travel development and to make the process more efficient and produce better results.

Research and Mining

In 2015, NASA published an online article talking about using to fabricate space parts for repairs to space vehicles. Dylan Carter, the author of the article, talked about using regolith (planetary body bedrock) handling devices. Here, after the regolith is collected, Carter’s theory is that useful materials could be sorted and grouped using a tribocharging technique.

Although the technology was in 2015 relatively new, Carter believes that his experiments prove that this could be an invaluable way of separating materials in space.

If this works, then humanity as a species is a step closer to mining and harvesting resources from celestial bodies.

Driving Investment

Being able to separate materials on an industrial scale has always been vital to the manufacturing sector. Given the infinite resources of space, being able to harvest these resources represent a big draw for investment. This can be seen with the rise of Space X, whose goal is to make space profitable and create a Mars colony. It has undertaken a lot of work in developing space vehicles that can be reused.


Humanity is not at the point where deep space mining is possible. Commercial space flight developments, however, could be the key to making it possible.

Commercial entities are freer to focus on singular goals, greatly speeding up the process and allocating all resources to hitting said goal. Should companies like Space X focus on this endeavor, we may see space mining a reality in the not too distant future.

Material separation processes will be an invaluable part of this process.

Space Vehicle Repairs

Collisions with debris are a real danger when traveling in space. Small punctures up until a millimeter in diameter cause problems, 10 milometers or greater can cause potentially catastrophic damage to space vehicles according to the ESA.

This is mostly due to the high velocities space debris and particles travel. What would be considered harmless on Earth is potentially lethal when in space.

Currently, vehicles such as the International Space Station uses passive techniques to avoid smaller particles.

Nonetheless, if the dream of Mars colonies and beyond are going to become a reality, then the ability of a crew to fabricate raw materials for essential repairs is mission-critical. As such, material separation technology is going to be essential to bring long-range manned space flight within humanities reach.

Currently, on Earth, material separation and recycling are possible and are being improved year on year. Soon, we may be able to do this in space, and that’s when things become really exciting.

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