Asteroid Mining Overview - Hande Mert


Ever since the first space mission in 1961, our species have never stopped wondering about the mysteries of space and tried to unravel it. The idea of space and its wonders has attracted people both scientifically and fictionally. Lots of movies have been made about this hot topic that is space. Although the real process of spaceflight for space exploration and product manufacturing in space for use on Earth is much more challenging than what we’ve seen so far on the screen.

Day by day, Earth’s precious metals’ supply chain is decreasing, and according to some studies, some essential elements for the modern industry could run out within 50 to 60 years. Therefore private investors and scientists have begun to search for a source that would make up for the shortage of these minerals or maybe even replace it.

When asteroids are scrutinized, results have revealed that asteroids contain Earth-based minerals like gold, platinum, silver, copper, iron, etc. These metals have been crucial to the mining industry, which is tied with the economic growth of modern society.

The exploitation of raw materials from asteroids to make it available and profitable for use on Earth is called Asteroid Mining. An asteroid prospection step must be implemented to perform mining activities, which is the characterization of target asteroid/s. After the identification, mineral values in the target asteroid/s, number of Near-Earth-Asteroids will show the extraction and transportation process.

Different from regular mining methods, in asteroid mining, the operations are being controlled by mining stations built in Low-Earth-Orbits. For the extraction and transportation of the ore extracted from NEA’s, a spacecraft of robots and automated haulers would be used. Also, to keep the operation stable, other robots would be needed for the maintenance of the mining and hauling vessels and machines. Another thing about the operation is, more than one orbital platform would be needed to control dock, offload, and refuel steps.

To make asteroids available for use on Earth, ground studies and samples from asteroids must be examined. So, NASA has gone on some missions to serve his purpose. According to their report, “Out of millions of known asteroids, Earth’s Spacecraft have visited only 12 asteroids and managed to land on only 2.” This means there are thousands of asteroids waiting to be visited. With that being said, all of these missions require a long period of time and a lot of money.

For example, the mission Hayabusa was launched in 2003, ground samples returned to Earth in 2010. The landing was only a few seconds, and the collection phase started in 2005. And Hayabusa was only a “Touch and Go” mission. Hayabusa’s mission cost $170 Million. Another planned” Touch and Go” mission is called OSIRIS-REx, launched in 2016, aimed to probe the asteroid 1999 RQ36. In 2019, it reached the asteroid and will bring the collected sample back to Earth in 2023. Samples that were collected were for further studies. OSIRIS-REx cost $750 Million.


These capital investments raise the obvious question: is it worth all the money? After taking a look at NASA’s latest update about a recently discovered asteroid called 16 Psyche, the answer would be pretty clear. It is a rare and very important asteroid made of metals that are the same as the core of Earth, making 16 Pysche extraordinarily important.

“We’ve seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche could be unique in that it might be an asteroid that is made of iron and nickel,” said Tracy Becker, one of the study’s authors and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Given the asteroid’s size, its metal content could be worth $10,000 quadrillion ($10,000,000,000,000,000,000), or about 10,000 times the global economy as of 2019.

From another point of view, the current mining techniques damage the natural environment. The chemicals that are being used in operations cause contamination of water and air. The extraction step can cause erosion, hazards, and habitat destruction of animals and not to mention social impacts. By learning these mistakes that the mining industry made on the environment, asteroid mining can shift these burdens off Earth. A new, innovative, and more profitable era can begin.


Bibliography:


“Asteroid Mining: A New Space Race.” OpenMind, May 19, 2020. https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/physics/asteroid-mining-a-new-space-race/.


“The Asteroid Trillionaires,” June 11, 2018. https://physicsworld.com/a/the-asteroid-trillionaires/.


Cao, Sissi. “NASA Discovers a Rare Metal Asteroid That's Worth $10,000,000,000,000,000,000,” October 28, 2020. https://observer.com/2020/10/nasa-discover-asteroid-pysche-metal-10-quadrillion/.


Jezard, Adam. “These Elements Could Disappear from the World.” Accessed November 2, 2020. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/11/the-periodic-table-of-endangered-elements/.


“Robotic Asteroid Prospector (RAP).” NASA, 2013.


“Sustainable Space Mining.” Nature Astronomy 3, no. 6 (2019): 465–65. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-019-0827-7.


Valentine, Lee. “A Space Roadmap: Mine the Sky, Defend the Earth, Settle the Universe,” 2002. http://ssi.org/reading/papers/space-studies-institute-roadmap/.


Williams, Matthew S. “Asteroid Mining Could Become a Reality in the Next Coming Years,” October 30, 2020. https://interestingengineering.com/asteroid-mining-what-will-it-involve-and-is-this-the-future-of-wealth.


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