Mining the Cosmos

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A zealous enterprise to mine the solar system

Gizmos and Gadgets
Regan Meloche

Contributor

A privately-held American company wants to start mining resources. The site: asteroids in outer space.

The more scientists learn about asteroids, the better the chances of preventing an impact that could destroy humanity. But, another reason to study these rocky remnants of the Solar System's creation has begun to emerge: asteroid mining.

Last week, the new company Deep Space Industries unveiled its ambitious plan to begin mining asteroids within the next decade. Deep Space is the second major company to enter this industry, following Planetary Resources, which was established last year.

Most asteroids in the solar system are in the Asteroid Belt between Jupiter and Mars, but there are many others orbiting outside of this region. These asteroids can be anywhere from a few meters across, to the size of Ceres, the largest asteroid at about 950 km across.

As a young planet, the Earth went to the school of hard knocks, being constantly bombarded with asteroids until the rest of the solar system matured and settled down. For better or for worse, many scientists believe that this turbulent time with the asteroids gave the earth many of the precious materials that it contains today, including water. In addition to water, asteroids are also known to contain iron, nickel, titanium, platinum group metals, and maybe even gold – all precious metals found within the earths surface.

Imagine this scenario: A robotic spacecraft flying millions of kilometers above anchors itself to a near-earth asteroid that a space probe has identified as being suitable for mining. Once anchored, it deploys a large canopy to collect any mined materials that may fly off the asteroid due to the low gravity. Running on solar power, it then begins digging into and raking the surface of the asteroid to extract the valuable materials. It uses a built-in electrolysis machine to separate the water that it collects into hydrogen and oxygen, which is manufactured on-site into rocket fuel. All the other mined materials are secured on the asteroid and fueled up, the flying factory blasts off, easily escaping the asteroid's low gravity, to its next location. A construction company's cargo craft comes along, loads the material, and transports it to the moon, where it is being used to build a roller coaster for the Solar System's first extraterrestrial amusement park.

Improbable? For now. Impossible? Never.

Proponents of asteroid mining argue that if researchers could get at these materials, then it is possible to make huge advances in space science and engineering.

Space colonization may one day become a necessity rather than a fantasy, and asteroid mining could ideally give humanity some key advantages.

Due to earth's high gravity, it is very expensive to transport anything into space. With asteroid mining, the extracted materials could be used for construction in space, saving companies the hassle in trying to launch  2,000-pound girders hundreds of kilometers into the atmosphere.

Once in space, moving things around could become a lot easier. Materials mined could be used for satellites, more spaceships, or planetary bases. The mining would also be largely robotic, meaning companies are free to take more risks, and hopefully get things done a bit quicker.

Deep Space Industries’ plan includes the use of a few key robots to start out. The first is called the Firefly. The company hopes to launch this small 25 kg probe to search for suitable asteroids, followed by the larger Dragonfly, which will bring back 150 kg of asteroid material to earth. Finally, they plan on actively mining for materials such as metal and water using the Harvestor.

While Deep Space predicts many accomplishments from its space mining project, only time will tell if the other major company, Planetary Resources, is being more realistic with their goal of expanding earth's natural resources into space.

In the short-term, Planetary Resources has set out to develop small, inexpensive telescopes that can be sent into space. These telescopes can be used for studying the earth, communications, and surveying asteroids. Their first telescope prototype, Arkyd 100, is currently in production.

Whether the two companies may find a way to work together, or create competition between one another in this new industry has the science world captivated, and intrigued.    So, where does NASA fit into all of this?

Currently, the Space Administration have a space probe en route to study Ceres, and their OSIRIS-Rex mission in 2016 has the objective of bringing back a small material sample from the asteroid 1999 RQ36. While they will certainly play a role in asteroid mining, NASA may take a back seat and allow the private companies to explore the mining options.

While asteroid mining is a costly business venture, Planetary Resources and Deep Space are continuing to research profitable strategies for making this zealous enterprise profitable.

If they do find the equation to profit, asteroid mining may bring advances in general mining techniques, robotics, and engineering. The question that remains to be asked, however, is whether the colonization of space can be a venture that is ethically supported by the general public?

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