Course Content last updated on September 21, 2020
Asteroid mining is the exploitation of raw materials from asteroids and other minor planets, including near-Earth objects.
Hard rock minerals could be mined from an asteroid or a spent comet. Precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum group metals could be transported back to Earth, whilst iron group metals and other common ones could be used for construction in space.
Difficulties include the high cost of spaceflight, unreliable identification of asteroids which are suitable for mining, and ore extraction challenges. Thus, terrestrial mining remains the only means of raw mineral acquisition used today. If space program funding, either public or private, dramatically increases, this situation may change as resources on Earth become increasingly scarce compared to demand and the full potentials of asteroid mining—and space exploration in general—are researched in greater detail.
Mining resources from asteroids may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but — at least if you believe some very smart people — it’s well on its way to becoming science fact.
What will be mined? Why would anyone want to do this? And who are the main players in this (literal) space? Read on for a beginner’s guide to all things asteroid mining.
“We really proved that doing one of these billion-dollar science missions to deep space can be done for a lot less if you have a very focused goal, and if you kind of cut a lot of corners and then put some commercial approaches into those things,” Lewicki said.
A Trillion-Dollar Industry
Why space mining? There are at least a trillion reasons.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said that the first trillionaire will be the “person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids.” That’s because asteroids—rocky remnants from the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago—harbor precious metals, ranging from platinum and gold to iron and nickel.
For instance, one future target of exploration by NASA—an asteroid dubbed 16 Psyche, orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. It’s a number so mind-bogglingly big that it would crash the global economy, if someone ever figured out how to tow it back to Earth without literally crashing it into the planet.
Living Off the Land
Space mining isn’t just about getting rich. Many argue that humanity’s ability to extract resources in space, especially water that can be refined into rocket fuel, will be a key technology to extend our reach beyond near-Earth space.
The presence of frozen water around the frigid polar regions of the moon, for example, represents an invaluable source to power future deep-space missions. Splitting H20 into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen would provide a nearly inexhaustible source of rocket fuel. Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit, according to NASA.
Until more advanced rocket technology is developed, the moon looks to be the best bet for serving as the launching pad to Mars and beyond.
2012-2025: Launch of space probes and telescopes to prospect and collect data on near earth asteroids, such as the LEO Space telescope and the ARKYD Series 100 Interceptor, and ARKYD Series 300 Rendezvous Prospector (“Technology,” 2012)
2025-2035: NASA lands an astronaut on an asteroid
2035-2045: Space development and infrastructure necessary to further space exploration and exploitation
2045+: Asteroid mining prospers, as well as humankind’s expansion in space
Why mine asteroids?
- Why mine asteroids
Asteroid mining is a very interesting and important topic. It has been said that it will add trillions to the economy. It has the potential to reduce the price of critical metals including platinum and cobalt, handle resource depletion, move environmentally harmful mining off the planet, and help humanity explore and colonize the solar system. It promises to be one of the most influential sectors of the economy and of space exploration. Asteroid mining represents a potentially large fraction of future human space activity and of our economy. Yet knowledge about asteroids is minimal. These cyber library entries are chosen to allow you to improve your knowledge about asteroids and current plans to utilize their resources. Source: http://theweek.com/articles/462830/how-asteroid-mining-could-add-trillions-world-economy
- How asteroids could be mined
There are currently three proposed ways to mine asteroids. One is to send out a “robot prospector” to remove precious materials from asteroids and take the resources to their destinations (likely other developments in the solar system or Earth) via capsules. Another is to send a probe to bag a small asteroid and bring it to lunar or Earth orbit (most plans involve lunar orbit to avoid the immense risk of accidentally hitting the Earth with an asteroid), extract resources there, and send out capsules like the previous plan. Finally, a probe might bag an asteroid and then use reflected solar radiation to cause pockets of volatiles to evaporate and be captured in the bag before being transported to the home location via capsules, like the other plans. This has been termed “Optical mining”.
- Current companies developing asteroid mining technologies:
- Deep Space Industries WebpageURL
- DSI is one of the major companies making progress toward asteroid mining. They are volunteering with Enterprise In Space to curate this Center for Excellence, and working with EIS to do conceptual design of systems that might be used aboard the NSS Enterprise spacecraft.The four phases of DSI’s plan, from their website, are as follows:ProspectingDeep Space Industries will soon launch its first prospecting missions, using advanced, small spacecraft — like Prospector-1™ — to explore and study Near Earth Asteroids. These prospecting spacecraft will be fitted with sophisticated scientific equipment to help them find water, metals, silicates, and more. Using robotic spacecraft to extract and transport resources.Processing:Once asteroid materials are returned to near-Earth space, they can then be processed into fuel, drinking water, and building supplies. Harvesting spacecraft will unload their cargo to a processing complex that begins the detailed separation and evolution of materials, getting them ready for manufacturing. Manufacturing in micro-gravity and hard vacuum offers both opportunities and challenges. The upside of making things in space includes the ability to create very large structures that would never fit into the confines of a launch vehicle’s payload fairing. Huge solar arrays to produce energy and enormous antenna to enhance communications satellites are among the possibilities.
A two-camera optical navigation system enables proximity operations at asteroids or at close range to other targets. This vision system is developed jointly between Deep Space Industries and University of Luxembourg’s* Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability, and Trust (SnT).Deep Space Avionics
Modular, scalable, and intrinsically radiation-tolerant avionics combine the best of commercial technologies with rigorous screening and innovative design approaches to enable cost-effective, yet radiation-robust subsystems for deep space.
- -Source http://deepspaceindustries.com
- DSI is not only interested in space mining, but in providing improved flight hardware for satellites, including its own. DSI has developed a new thruster that uses water as a propellant called the Comet. DSI says, “It is intrinsically inert, launch safe, and cost-effective. This low-power, low-profile, high total impulse micro-propulsion system is CubeSat-compatible but incorporates a highly-flexible interface suitable for a wide range of spacecraft sizes. If successful, this has the potential to be very useful as DSI plans to mine water from asteroids, thus ensuring a quick, cheap, and effective fuel source.”
- Additive manufacturing in micro-gravity.
- Separating resources into usable materials.
- After prospecting missions have identified the best locations for mining, Deep Space Industries will send specialized robotic spacecraft to begin harvesting resources such as water. Using the company’s next generation Comet water thruster, water extracted from the target asteroid can also be used as propellant for the return trip.
- Using tiny scouts to locate and evaluate space resources.
- While asteroid mining may seem to be something indefinitely far in the future, a few companies are working today to make it possible in hopes of getting in on the ground floor of this future multi-trillion dollar industry. Below is information and links to these companies’ webpages. The two main ones today that are specifically focused on asteroid mining are Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. Other companies, including Boeing or SpaceX are not doing much work directly related to asteroid mining, but are working on individual technologies that could be utilized later for asteroid mining. Also many space agencies and companies are engaged in assisting future asteroid mining including NASA, ESA,and the government of Luxembourg
- The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids, M. J. Sonter.
- Michael Booth: The Future of Space Mining (December 21, 1995)
- The Plan to Bring an Asteroid to Earth
- How Asteroids can save mankind
- Luxembourg aims to be big player in possible asteroid mining, The Guardian, February 2016.
- Blair, Brad R. (2000). “The Role of Near-Earth Asteroids in Long-Term Platinum Supply” (PDF). Space Resources Roundtable II. 1.
- Video Beyond Earth – NEO Destinations NewSpace Conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, Aug 7, 2011
- Video Moon, Mars, Asteroids – Where to Go First for Resources? Space manufacturing Conference of the Space Studies Institute, October 2010
- Video Moving An Asteroid California Institute of Technology, Workshop Public Lecture Panel, September 2011
- Video Asteroid Mining – The Market Problem and Radical Solution, November 2013
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