Resources here on earth are rare like metals and water on which the world’s industries are dependent. These resources are depleting sooner than we anticipated that’s why many intellectuals and tech entrepreneurs are targeting asteroid mining as the future source of these resources.
Introduction to Asteroid Mining
Asteroids are somewhat similar to our planet and just like Earth; they have huge deposits of water and rich mineral deposits. It’s estimated that there are over 16,000 asteroids in Earth’s orbit and they can carry about two trillion tons of water while some other asteroids have heavy deposits of platinum and other precious metals. These minerals can be synthesized and used in various electronic devices or be industrialized in their purest form.
The asteroid 2011 UW158 is a platinum rich asteroid and was very close to Earth in July 2015. It was estimated to contain 90 million tons of platinum in its core and along with other precious metal deposits. This asteroid was estimated to be worth anywhere between $300 billion to $5.4 trillion.
Asteroid mining is a reality and a few entrepreneurs are already investing in this latest cosmic venture. Companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are considered to be some of the biggest players in this space. Both companies are funded by numerous tech companies like Tencent, entrepreneurs and cofounders of world-famous tech giants like Google and are doing some pioneering work in this field.
Planetary Resources formerly known as Arcade Astronautics was founded in 2009 with the aim of mining asteroids for water and other rich mineral sources. The folks at PR believe that if we’re successful in mining asteroids and find water it will be possible to construct refueling stations for rockets in space. Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen both of which when cooled down can be used in liquid form as a fuel for rockets and the survival of astronauts.
Apart from water asteroids as mentioned earlier are also rich in other rare minerals and once accessible can help in future space missions. Intellectuals believe that once turned into reality asteroid mining will reduce the cost of space travel and help mankind becoming an interplanetary species.
Targeting the right asteroids
There are numerous asteroids in our solar system and earth’s orbit but not all of them consist of useful minerals and water. The first step toward asteroid mining is to identify the asteroids which can be targeted for mining useful resources. Unlike here on earth asteroids can’t be identified as a resource-rich area with the help of soil samples and a group of people with expertise.
Asteroid surfaces are not so easily accessible right now; companies like PR are targeting the near-earth asteroids which are easily accessible and require less energy for launching an automated space vehicle to their surface. These near-Earth asteroids pass over the earth and in some cases, some of their orbits also interact with the Earth’s orbit making it easier to understand their composition using remote sensing technology.
This technology helps to develop radar images of the asteroids which can be analyzed to understand their usefulness in terms of resources. Such data collected over several years by various Space Research organizations has made it possible to develop high potential asteroid targets. Apart from the richness in terms of resources other factors such as the asteroid’s orbital path, its size spin rate, and composition are also taken into consideration for identifying it as a prospective target for mining.
Mining asteroids is in its very primitive stages and the initial mining operations would be completely automated in nature. Unlike Earth and other planets, asteroids do not have a gravitational field that’s why very little energy is needed to enter an asteroid surface and escape it.
Planetary Resources aims at launching its first automated probe for proofreading its asteroid mining concept in 2020. This probe will not mine or collect any resources instead collect data to verify the presence of resources on the targeted asteroid. The company will be working on launching its automated space vehicles for conducting actual mining the company is hoping to conduct its first actual mining operation by 2022.
Challenges and threats
Aside from the fact that a lot of resources will be needed to start the very first mining operations, numerous technological challenges need to be addressed. Pinpointing the right asteroids which are abundant is not an easy job. Even if the researchers managed to do that it should be noted that these rocky bodies are not stationary which makes it even more challenging to launch an automated space vehicle that can mine them.
Many asteroids are like a pile of loosely held giant rocks which means we need to develop a technique of holding them together so the very first automated vehicles are in a position to land on their surfaces. Intellectuals believe that asteroids are humanity’s greatest challenge and they fear the destruction that will happen on earth in the case of a massive asteroid strike.
Time will tell if we’re able to overcome the associated technical challenges and harvest these mines in outer space but unlike some of the critics, we would like to stay optimistic about this fascinating space venture.
All the space missions so far relied heavily on the fuel and resources that were carried from Earth by space shuttles or Rockets. If asteroid mining becomes possible it will change the economies of space travel. Not only will it serve as a base for refueling our Rockets but it will also serve as a backdrop in case of extinction of the resources on earth. This technology is in its primitive stage we should try our very best to conserve the resources we already have on earth.