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 [inverse.com] 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. [linkedin.com], a researcher at the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, tells Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua [xinhuanet.com]. 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 [inverse.com]. 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 [inverse.com] worth of precious metals.
I'm envisioning two ways of getting asteroid chunks [wikipedia.org] 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 [soylentnews.org]
NASA Asteroid Mission -- Metals "Worth" Ten Thousand Quadrillion Dollars [soylentnews.org]
Asteroid Mining Could Begin in 10-20 Years [soylentnews.org]
"Mission Success" for Arkyd-6 Asteroid Prospecting Demonstration Spacecraft [soylentnews.org] (Planetary Resources has since run dry on funding [teslarati.com])