Merritt Island, Fla. (CBS TAMPA) —  A team of NASA researchers believe that asteroids could be used to excavate and produce raw materials using industrial machinery in space.

In a study published and entitled “Affordable, Rapid and Solar System Civilization,” Kennedy Space Center physicist Phil Metzger and his colleagues see the possibility of a large-scale industry that would create the most profound societal changes since the Industrial Revolution.

“We’re predicting that we are on the verge of the next revolution in human civilization,” Metzger said.

The scientists found that near-Earth asteroids or other nearby space rock could contain enough material to allow a robotic system to mine the materials and refine them into usable metal or other substances. Those materials would be formed into pieces and assembled into another robot system that would itself build similar models and advance the design.

NASA is searching for an asteroid close to 500 tons that can be moved into a path within the moon’s orbit so astronauts can visit it as early as 2021 to take samples of the space rock.

“When we wrote this paper we were focused on the moon as a source of near-Earth resources, but near Earth asteroids work equally well and offer several additional advantages,” Metzger said.

“It takes less fuel to bring resources away from the lower gravity of an asteroid, and since the ultimate goal is to move the industry to the asteroid main belt starting with asteroids first will help develop the correct technologies.”

The machinery on such asteroids would evolve over time into increasingly complex industries. They would start with gas production and the creation of solar cells, vital for providing a power source.

“The first generation only makes the simplest materials, it can include metal and therefore you can make structure out of metal and then you can send robots that will attach electronics and wiring onto the metal,” Metzger said. “So by making the easiest thing, you’ve reduced the largest amount of mass that you have to launch.”

Each new robot could add improvements to each successive model and quickly advance the mining and manufacturing capabilities, Science Daily reports. It would not take long for the miners to produce more material than they need for themselves and they could start shipping precious metals back to Earth, riding on heat shields made of the leftover soil that doesn’t contain any precious material.

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