Mining asteroids for valuable resources is a familiar science fiction trope, and one that modern science, pushed by economic necessity, is working hard to realise.
Resources are becoming increasingly scarce. The rush for oil, gas and valuable minerals taking place in the Arctic is the result of a combination of global shortages, rising prices, technical advances and the exposure of wide areas of the Arctic Ocean during summer melts. Most commentators expect the Arctic to play a key role in meeting the world’s energy needs in the twenty-first century. The US Geological survey estimates that the Arctic holds thirty percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas, of which eighty percent will be off-shore. On land, however, the areas exploited for minerals or hydrocarbons are likely to remain relatively small.
It’s time to look beyond the Earth for essential resources. Asteroids are a potential source of valuable materials, including nickel, water and gases that could be used to make fuel for future space missions. But much of their value comes from the fact that they’re already in space.
On the commercial front, Eric Anderson, co-founder of Space Adventures, and Chris Lewicki, a former NASA engineer and flight director for the Mars roversSpirit and Opportunity, have recognised the vast potential resource embodied in the millions of asteroids that exist within our solar system. They have set up an asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources, to search for, identify and then exploit mineral-rich asteroids. It seems like an overly ambitious project, but they have the expertise and the financial backing to make it happen.Google billionaires, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and former Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyiare fully behind the project. Larry commented on the launch of Planetary Resources in April last year:
‘Their first mission: to mine asteroids for the benefit of humanity!’
Planetary Resources took a step towards this goal with the unveiling of aprototype asteroid-hunting telescope, Arkyd 100.
The initial phaseinvolves launching dedicated space-telescopes into orbit. The main asteroid belt, which is located roughly between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter, contains billions of asteroids—estimates put the number of viable asteroids for mining purposes at 1.5 to 2 million. These telescopes will be able to identify individual asteroids and examine their composition, and will be sensitive enough to differentiate between metals, water and silicates.
Once promising asteroids have been identified, spacecraft—essentially rocket-assisted telescopes—will be sent out to intercept and study them. In an article for the New Scientist (17th August, 2012) Eric Anderson said, ‘We’ll know that asteroid inside out before we go and mine it.’
Planetary Resources hope to put ten to fifteen space-telescopes into orbit in the next five years.
The commercial exploitation of asteroids has become a race. Deep Space Industries (DSI) of McLean, Virginia, held a press event at the Santa Monica Museum of Flight in California on 22ndJanuary this year. “Our business plan is to get into this field as it begins, and it is beginning today,” said founder and chairman Rick Tumlinson. The plans of DSI are reminiscent of the fictional company, Event Horizon, depicted in the Peter F Hamilton ‘Greg Mandel’ series, where the resources mined from asteroids are processed in ‘microgee modules’—material processing factories—and used to supplycomponents and fuel to satellites in orbit. The comparison deepens with the DSI’slonger term plans to build orbiting platforms that can beam high-speed internet and cheap solar energy back to the Earth.
According to the New Scientist (23rd January 2013) DSI plans to launch three laptop-sized satellites called FireFlies in 2015 to observe near-Earth asteroids and identify the best targets for mining. In the following year, it plans to launch DragonFly spacecraft to bring samples weighing between 23 and 45 kilograms back to Earth. By 2020, the company hopes to start harvesting asteroids for useful goods, particularly the raw products needed to produce fuel. DSI expects its first clients to be the owners of the communications satellites that require propellant to stay in their designated orbits.
In addition to asteroids, many exoplanets have been identified beyond our solar system. Michael Lemonick, in his book Mirror Earth, gives a valuable insight into exoplanet discovery, the majority of which—almost 3000—were discovered by the Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009.
The discovery of a ‘diamond planet’ 40 light-years from Earth, and the implication that scientists can no longer assume that rocky planets are Earth-like, opens up a whole new area for research and exploration. The planet, 55 Cancri e, is twice the size of Earth but has eight times its mass. According to Bhaskar Prasad, writing for the International Business Times (17th October 2012),the surface of the planet is likely to be covered in graphite and diamond.
There are still decades until the development of asteroid mining reach a viable and economically practical stage. These scientific and technological developments will allow the human race to expand into and then beyond the limits of our local star system.