The key elements needed for modern industry and food production could be exhausted on Earth within 50–60 years as their terrestrial reserves are depleting and their growing consumption in both developed and developing countries. Now countries are exploring the mining of asteroids to satisfy their need. Asteroid mining is the exploitation of raw materials from asteroids and other minor planets, including near-Earth objects. For years experts have considered the possibility of mining the tens of thousands of asteroids orbiting Earth, though logistics and other hurdles have until now prevented this from becoming a reality.
Early evidence suggests that there are trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals and metals buried in asteroids that come close to the Earth. These include phosphorus, antimony, zinc, tin, lead, indium, silver, gold and copper. The mining of resources contained in asteroids, for use as propellant, building materials or in life-support systems, has the potential to revolutionize exploration of our Solar System.
Also crucial to the money-making opportunities was the burgeoning commercial space sector’s lobbying, which shepherded the SPACE Act through Congress in 2015. This not–uncontroversial bill included a “finders, keepers” rule whereby private American companies would have all rights to the bounty they extracted from celestial bodies, no questions asked. (Before that, property rights and mining concessions in space, which belongs to no country, were not a given.)
Planetary Resources, was launched in 2012 with the modest dream of mining asteroids for minerals, metals, water, and other valuables. Planetary Resources had raised $50 million by 2016, of which $21 million came from big-name investors including Google’s Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron. By the spring of 2017, Planetary Resources was operating a lab in a warehouse in Redmond, Washington, decorated with NASA paraphernalia and vintage pinball machines. Engineers tinkered with small cube satellites behind thick glass walls, crafting plans to launch prospecting machines. Before long, a competitor called Deep Space Industries (DSI) appeared on the scene. It raised much less cash: just $3.5 million, supplemented by some government contracts. “Both companies believed one of the early products would be propellant itself—that is, water,” says Grant Bonin, the former chief technology officer of Deep Space Industries. “What DSI had been doing is developing propulsion systems to run on water. And everyone who buys one is creating an ecosystem of users now that can be fueled by resources of the future.”
However both the companies failed to deliver on their promises. Planetary Resources was acquired by ConsenSys, a blockchain software company based in Brooklyn that develops decentralized platforms for signing documents, selling electricity, and managing real estate transactions, among other things. DSI, in turn, was acquired by an aeronautics company named Bradford Space. These acquisitions aren’t taking the companies anywhere. “They’re gone; they’re done. They don’t exist,” says Chad Anderson , the CEO of Space Angels, a venture capital fund that invests in space-related companies.
Number of technological and economic hurdles will also need to be overcome. To make this concept a reality, we need to increase our knowledge of the very diverse population of accessible Near Earth Asteroids (NEA). Some of these are the high launch and transportation costs of spaceflight, inaccurate identification of asteroids suitable for mining, and in-situ ore extraction challenges. Economic costs extremely large, according to one the starting cost of asteroid mining to be $100B.
However, in spite of these hurdles several international organizations are developing plans for going up to get these natural space resources. Handful of private companies—including Deep Space Industries, Kepler Energy & Space Engineering and Planetary Resources—have started to draw up plans to get into the asteroid mining game. Total private investment in commercial space ventures rose from $534m in 2014 to $3.1bn last year, notes Chad Anderson, head of Space Angels, a US-based company investing in the sector. Space mining is currently described as a nascent industry, one that doesn’t quite exist but is on the verge of becoming economically viable.
Now, For the first time in its history, NASA has successfully collected samples from the surface of an asteroid, using the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in Oct 2020. The small spacecraft has been orbiting Bennu, an asteroid 500 meters across, for almost two years. Around 6 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, the spacecraft completed a “Touch-And-Go” maneuver before firing its thrusters to get back to a safe distance from the asteroid. The lonely space rock was more than 200 million miles away at the time. “We did it,” principal investigator Dante Lauretta said during the agency’s live broadcast. “We’ve tagged the surface of the asteroid.” The sample — which could be anywhere between 60 grams or more than a kilo — will now make its long journey back to Earth, and if all goes according to plan, touch down in September 2023.
“This was the key milestone of this mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “Now it’s a few days to figure out how much of this amazing sample we got that we’ve been thinking about for decades.” The first ever time anyone collected samples from an asteroid was the Japanese space agency’s Hayabusa spacecraft, which brought back only a few micrograms of material from the Itokawa asteroid in 2010. Its successor, Hayabusa2, also collected a different sample from asteroid Ryugu in 2019.
China is hoping to achieve a “major breakthrough” in its space program by 2040 — including the development of nuclear-powered space shuttles that will allow for the mining of asteroids and “large-scale space exploration” — state-run media have reported. Developing nuclear-powered space shuttles will “support large-scale exploration and development of space resources, and make mining on asteroids and space solar power plants possible,” Xinhua quoted the report. “In our lifetimes we will see commercial space, including resources, developing into a multi-trillion dollar industry,” says Chris Lewicki, chief executive of Planetary Resources, a US asteroid mining company.
What do Asteroids Contain?
Asteroids are the rocky crumbs left over after the formation of the planets in our Solar System. Most are found in a huge ring of space known as the asteroid belt- somewhere between the planets Mars and Jupiter. However, some are found outside the main asteroid belt. All told, there are thought to be more than 150 million asteroids in the inner Solar System alone, and that’s only the ones that measure 100 meters (330 ft) or more in diameter.
Most asteroids fit into three basic categories:
C-type – More than 75 percent of known asteroids fit into this category. The composition of C-type asteroids is similar to that of the sun without the hydrogen, helium and other volatiles.
S-type – About 17 percent of asteroids are this type. These contain deposits of nickel, iron and magnesium.
M-type – A small number of asteroids are this type, and they contain nickel and iron.
In addition to iron, nickel and magnesium, scientists think water, oxygen, gold and platinum also exist on some asteroids. A NEA like 3554 Amun, approximately 2 kilometers in diameters, contains nickel and iron worth $8 trillion, cobalt worth $6 trillion, other precious metals and gold worth another $6 trillion, which together totals $20 trillion. Based on such estimates, Li asserts that: Space mining might become a new engine for the global economy.
Scientists infer that a small platinum-rich asteroid, just 200 meters in length, could be worth $30 billion. In response, it has been suggested that platinum, cobalt and other valuable elements from asteroids may be mined and sent to Earth for profit, used to build solar-power satellites and space habitats, and water processed from ice to refuel orbiting propellant depots. Asteroid 2011 UW158, which sailed at a distance of 1.5 million miles from Earth in July 2015, was worth an estimated $5 trillion in platinum.
It is possible to find in outer space a ten-meter asteroid so rich in gold that its content would equal our entire planet’s gold reserves, said Pavel Ananyev, the director of the Scientific-Educational Center for Innovative Mining Technologies of the Moscow-based National University of Science and Technology MISIS (NUST MISIS). Our main goal is to use these resources to build research bases in space and the Earth’s orbit without violating international law. Today, 99 percent of the payload delivered into the Earth’s orbit is fuel. If we start extracting water from the lunar soil and found on natural space objects, and start producing hydrogen-based fuel up there, it will make space exploration hundreds of times cheaper, and change the entire paradigm of space technology.
A Kobe University research team detected the existence of water in a number of asteroids for the first time. Water is retained in the asteroids as hydrated minerals that were produced by chemical reactions occurring within the asteroid. The spectroscopic survey was conducted using the infrared camera (IRC) on board the Japanese IR satellite AKARI, launched in February 2006. In the warm mission period of AKARI, observations were performed for 66 asteroids for wavelengths from 2.5 to 5 μm. Observed results showed most C-complex asteroids to have clear absorption features related to hydrated minerals at a peak wavelength of approximately 2.75 μm, while S-complex asteroids were shown to have no significant features in this wavelength range.
Water interests space explorers most because it could help keep a space colony alive. Without water, there is really no way to move forward with human exploration of space. Water could also be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen to form rocket engine propellant. The metal ore on the asteroids could be mined and used for building spacecraft and other structures for a space colony.
NASA psyche mission
NASA is reportedly planning to launch a spacecraft in 2022, which is due to arrive at an asteroid named Psyche in 2026. More than 95 percent of Psyche appears to be made of iron, nickel, and other metals such as gold, platinum and copper. “Space mining might become a new engine for the global economy,” said Li. So far, the United States and Japan have landed probes on asteroids. Japan has brought back a sample. After sending a probe to Mars in 2020, China plans to explore asteroids and even land on one to conduct scientific research.
NASA is soon going to commence building its latest spacecraft called Psyche. The NASA mission will be to 226-kilometre wide asteroid dubbed ‘16 Psyche’. The spacecraft has cleared the ‘critical design’ phase in July 2020. NASA is working with SpaceX on this to launch Psyche from Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 39A, with the help of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, somewhere around August 2022. The rocket is expected to cross Mars in the year 2023 and will move towards the trajectory of the asteroid by January 2026 — so it’s a long journey.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator for the Psyche mission said in a statement, “It’s one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle. And we passed with flying colours. The challenges are not over, and we’re not at the finish line, but we’re running strong.”
NASA is now in the process of making three instruments — a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field of the asteroid, a multispectral imager to capture surface images, and spectrometers that look at neurons and gamma rays coming from the surface to learn more about its creation. The assembly and testing are expected to commence in February next year and the equipment will be in the cleanroom of JPL by April of 2021.
UK’s Asteroid Mining Corporation (AMC) planning for the lucrative industry of space mining.
The first mission of AMC is the Asteroid Prospecting Satellite to conduct a compositional survey of 5,000 NEAs [near-Earth asteroids] in order to produce a Space Resources Database; forming the bedrock of the data infrastructure needed for the space mining industry to flourish in the 2020s.
The dataset will then guide the target selection for our second mission, APS2, which will visit the asteroid we have identified as having the highest concentrations of platinum. APS2 will produce a global surface map of metallurgical, mineralogical and molecular components in order to select mining sites on the asteroid, while also examining the surface conditions of the asteroid in order to determine which attachment mechanisms and extraction techniques will be required to recover platinum from the asteroid.
Our short-term goal is to identify platinum group metals deposits on NEAs, this being critical to the development of AMC’s business case going forward into the 2020s. Our long-term goal is to extract said platinum from an asteroid by 2030, therefore kickstarting the space mining industry and expanding humanity’s reach beyond the Earth for the first time in history.
I believe the UK will be one of the strongest nations in the global space mining industry, says founder and CEO Mitch Hunter-Scullion. The UK has world renowned expertise in both mining technology and space tech; particularly in small satellites, which are critical to developing a low-cost space mining business model. The recent announcement of a Scottish Spaceport will also allow launches from the UK, providing an entire supply chain to be conducted within the UK – from design, to manufacture, to launch and operations.
China wants to Capture an asteroid, and bring it back to Earth
A group of Chinese scientists are mulling a bold idea to capture a small near-Earth asteroid, which might be a potential threat, and bring it back to Earth to exploit its resources. Researcher Li Mingtao, with the National Space Science Center under CAS, along with his team details that plan. The process could start with a spacecraft carrying a huge bag to wrap a small asteroid and push it back over the Earth. Then it would unfold a heat shield to reduce the velocity of the asteroid when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and control it to safely land in a no-human zone, Li explained. “Our analysis shows that maneuvering a small asteroid is feasible in principle, and could bring enormous economic and social benefits,” said Li.
Li said many key technologies would have to be tackled to achieve the goal. One challenge would be finding a suitable target. The smaller an asteroid, the more difficult it is to discover. Telescopes on the ground can only find small asteroids when they come very close. Li is working in collaboration with scientists from the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology, under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) to place satellites in the heliocentric Venus orbit, in order to search and analyze NEAs with a diameter of 10 meters.
The timeline for such a launch to capture an asteroid is 2029 and the aim is to bring it back to Earth around 2034. Unlike missions to bring samples back, we aim to bring back a whole asteroid weighing several hundred tonnes, which could turn asteroids with a potential threat to Earth into usable resources…Our analysis shows that maneuvering a small asteroid is feasible in principle, and could bring enormous economic and social benefits.
Huang Wei, chief engineer at an institute of the China Academy of Space Technology, said the idea is very creative and could help promote the development of space technologies. He said the hardest challenge might be the control of the asteroid after it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. They must design a heat shield, and drop the speed of the asteroid from 12.5 km per second to about 140 meters per second before it touches down at a designated area. The landing must be minutely controlled so that it lands in an area far from human habitation.To analyze the feasibility of the plan, Li’s team has targeted a small asteroid more than 100 million km away. It’s about 6.4 meters in diameter and weighs several hundred tonnes.
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