from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong? dept.
For centuries, humans have extracted minerals from the Earth with reckless abandon, but it's only a matter of time before our desire for gold, platinum, iron, tungsten, and other useful ores will exceed our planet's ability to provide them. But what if we could look beyond Earth for the raw materials we need to power the engines of industry? We'll spare you the disingenuous prattle about how this sounds like a sci-fi movie, because the fact of the matter is asteroid mining is right over the horizon, and a group of Chinese scientists is already trying to figure out how to snag a near-Earth asteroid out of space to harvest all its goodies on Earth.
"Sounds like science-fiction, but I believe it can be realized," Li Mingtao, Ph.D., a researcher at the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, tells Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua. Li and his colleagues introduced their plan at a competition in Shenzhen in which participants proposed innovative future technologies.
Their plan, which involves a constellation of satellites in an orbit around the sun that would search for asteroids, wrap a massive bag around an asteroid, and ferry it back to Earth, has significant engineering obstacles. Even once they get a spacecraft to intercept an asteroid and envelop it in some kind of strong material, they'll still have to get it here. That's where a giant, unfolding heat shield comes in, to keep the asteroid from burning up upon reentry. It may sound crazy, but it's just one of many equally ambitious ideas floating around in the asteroid mining field. And as far as asteroid mining schemes go, it sounds pretty reasonable.
So far, Li and his team have been working with the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology, under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, to identify a suitable target, reports Xinhua. This will likely be a near-Earth asteroid about 30 feet in diameter. Even a small asteroid would be hard to wrangle, but it could still potentially contain billions of dollars worth of precious metals.
I'm envisioning two ways of getting asteroid chunks down to Earth without burning them up: either a controlled landing of a small portion (tens or hundreds of tons) of minerals using a BFR or other reusable rocket, or diverting a heat-shielded asteroid (or small chunk of one) into Earth orbit and then controlling its descent. Possibly into a desert instead of an ocean.
Related: Luxembourg Announces Investment in Asteroid Mining
NASA Asteroid Mission -- Metals "Worth" Ten Thousand Quadrillion Dollars
Asteroid Mining Could Begin in 10-20 Years
"Mission Success" for Arkyd-6 Asteroid Prospecting Demonstration Spacecraft (Planetary Resources has since run dry on funding)
Luxembourg has announced that it will invest in the fledgling asteroid mining industry:
The government of Luxembourg announced Wednesday that the country will be investing in the as-yet-unrealized industry of asteroid mining. The tiny European country will be funding research into the extraction of minerals from objects in space, working on legal and regulatory frameworks to govern such activities and, potentially, directly investing in companies active in the field. The nation's ministry of the economy says in a statement that the measures are meant "to position Luxembourg as a European hub in the exploration and use of space resources."
It's a futuristic move, but not a wholly startling one. Luxembourg is already home to SES, a satellite operator, and has previously moved to boost its international high-tech profile.
[...] Luxembourg hopes to address [the legality of space mining] too, with a formal legal framework of its own — possibly constructed with international input — to ensure that those who harvest minerals can be confident that they'll own what they bring home. "The aim is to stimulate economic growth on Earth and offer new horizons in space exploration," Luxembourg's ministry of the economy writes.
This announcement comes shortly after the United States took a huge step forward in making commercial space mining legal. President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) in November, which stated that U.S. companies are entitled to maintain property rights of resources they've obtained from outer space. [...] CSLCA explicitly outlined private sector rights which were only implicitly stated in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is the prevailing international law on these matters. Now that CSLCA has been passed in the U.S., it reduces regulatory risk for domestic companies investing millions of dollars into the technology required to properly mine space resources. With today's announcement Luxembourg is on its way to become the second country to lay the groundwork required to make space mining a reality.
NASA wants to uncover the mystery behind the asteroid “16 Psyche.” that may contain a priceless treasure trove of minerals. “We’ve been to all the different planets, we’ve been to other asteroids. But we’ve never visited a body that has been made of entirely metal,” said Carol Polanskey, project scientist for the Psyche mission. Now NASA, led by researchers at Arizona State University, plans to send an unmanned spacecraft to orbit 16 Psyche – an asteroid roughly the size of Massachusetts, made of iron and other precious metals. The mission’s leader estimates that the iron alone on today’s market would be worth $10,000 quadrillion.
Previously: NASA Selects Two Missions to Visit Asteroids
One expert... in the field of asteroid mining, has predicted that asteroid mining could begin in 10-20 years:
"Asteroid mining on a regular basis, such as terrestrial mining takes place today, with an established industry and an ecosystem of supporting services businesses for the mining companies, could start anywhere from 20 to 50 years is my personal opinion. But any industry must start somewhere, and I think we will see the first asteroid being mined 10 to 20 years from now, at which point the surrounding ecosystem will begin to grow," [J.L.] Galache said.
However, in order to successfully start asteroid mining, a few obstacles must first be overcome. One of these is insufficient knowledge about certain types of asteroids. Although our understanding of asteroids as a whole is advanced enough, gaining a better understanding of the nature of various types of near-Earth objects could be a critical factor in terms of success. Galache underlined that mining techniques will have to be tailored to specific types of asteroids. "For example, you will not send the same equipment to mine an iron-nickel asteroid as you would a carbonaceous asteroid, and you will not send the same equipment to mine a fine regolith-covered asteroid as a rubble pile. I do believe we have figured out what all the unknowns are and it is just a matter of finding answers and solutions to those unknowns," he noted.
The technology demonstration spacecraft Arkyd-6, built by Planetary Resources to test technologies for future asteroid prospecting, has completed all of its mission requirements, the company said April 24, 2018.
Launched on Jan. 12, 2018, atop an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle with 30 other satellites, the 22-pound (10-kilogram) Arkyd-6 was designed as a technology demonstrator for future missions to explore and categorize asteroids for eventual resource mining.
[...] The company said the spacecraft successfully deployed its solar panels, demonstrated using its attitude control, distributed computing systems, communications systems, and its Mid-Wavelength Infrared (MWIR) imager.
Planetary Resources said the MWIR is the first commercial imager of its kind in space. It is capable of detecting water and other resources on Earth, but the company hopes to use the technology to locate water and minerals on asteroids for potential mining.
The company plans to launch Arkyd-301 spacecraft to near-Earth asteroids starting in 2020. The article includes an animation of what an Algerian refinery looks like using the MWIR imager.
Previously: Planetary Resources' Arkyd-6 Ready for Launch
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is starting to earnestly evaluate space resources for future mining. Since its establishment in the 1870s, the USGS has focused pretty much solely on Earth. But now it's also investigating what benefits may or may not exist in tapping extraterrestrial water, minerals and metals.
[...] This past June, several USGS experts took part in a Space Resources Roundtable held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. "The space-resources community will benefit greatly from working together with the USGS to assess the location and value of minerals, energy and water on the moon, Mars and asteroids," said Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines. [...] It's also worth noting that the new director of the USGS, Jim Reilly, is a geoscientist and former NASA astronaut. During his 13-year NASA career, Reilly flew on three space shuttle missions, conducted five spacewalks and racked up a total of more than 856 hours in orbit.
[...] [Laszlo Kestay, a research geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona,] pointed to the USGS' participation in space-resource workshops. In addition, there's the 2017 "Feasibility Study for the Quantitative Assessment of Mineral Resources in Asteroids" led by Kestay, which found that the water and metal resources of near-Earth asteroids are sufficient to support humanity should it become a fully spacefaring species. "At this point, we have done enough work to feel confident that the methods the USGS uses to assess mineral, energy and water resources on Earth can be used to assess space resources with minimal modification," Kestay said. "We have also done enough preliminary work to identify some areas where humanity's lack of knowledge will result in exceedingly large uncertainties in assessments undertaken today."
Also at Forbes.
Étienne Schneider, deputy prime minister of Luxembourg, frequently tells the story of how he got interested in building a space resources industry in the country. His efforts to diversify the country's economy several years ago led to a meeting with Pete Worden, at the time the director of NASA's Ames Research Center and a proponent of many far-reaching space concepts. During an Oct. 22 panel discussion at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington, he recalled Worden advocating for commercial space: "Why shouldn't you go for space mining activities?"
"When he explained all this to me, I thought two things," Schneider said. "First of all, what did the guy smoke before coming into the office? And second, how do I get him out of here?"
He eventually bought into Worden's vision, starting a space resources initiative that attracted companies to the country while enacting a space resources law like that in the United States. By the beginning of 2019, though, it looked like it might all be a bad trip. The two major startups in that industry, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, had been acquired by other companies with no interest in space resources. Worse, the Planetary Resources deal wiped out an investment of 12 million euros Luxembourg made in the startup.
Schneider is undaunted by those setbacks as he continues work to make Luxembourg a hotbed of entrepreneurial space, a scope that has expanded beyond, but has not abandoned, space resources. During the IAC, the country's year-old space agency signed an agreement with NASA to explore potential cooperation, building on an agreement Luxembourg signed with the U.S. Commerce Department in May. Just before the conference, Luxembourg announced it would partner with the European Space Agency on a space resources center in the country.
The article includes an interview with Schneider.
NASA Asteroid Mission -- Metals "Worth" Ten Thousand Quadrillion Dollars
Asteroid Mining Could Begin in 10-20 Years
"Mission Success" for Arkyd-6 Asteroid Prospecting Demonstration Spacecraft
Chinese Researchers Propose Asteroid Mining Plan, Including a Heat Shield
The U.S. Geological Survey is Beginning to Take a Serious Look at Asteroid Mining
Robotic Asteroid Mining Spacecraft Wins a Grant From NASA
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