While reading this article on a laptop or smartphone, take a moment to observe your surroundings! You can easily spot some electronic devices, which have made our daily life easier by multiplying thanks to the rapid advancement of modern technologies.
Precious and rare materials extracted from the depths of the Earth make these electrical devices and many other industrial products a reality. Mining makes this possible. And with the technological boom, these essential minerals, including strategic metals and rare earths, have become a necessary fuel for our modern life.
However, with demand growing exponentially and digging deeper, the chances that these non-renewable resources will soon disappear are very high. Therefore, before it comes to this, experts hope to find alternatives. The solution may come from thinking outside the box or, in itself, from something outside of Earth itself!
The endless sea of resources offered by the cosmic world, such as wandering asteroids, has attracted considerable attention in this regard. This compelling and lucrative idea of asteroid mining would be the possible future of space exploration. On this asteroid day, let’s take a closer look at the concept.
What is asteroid mining?
Asteroids are rocky celestial worlds that orbit the majestic Sun. These are the fragments left behind by the tumultuous formation of our home solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. These space rocks are smaller than planets, and our solar system is home to millions of varying sizes and shapes.
Most asteroids reside in the Asteroid Belt, a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Common types of asteroids with exploration potential are carbon (type C), siliceous (type S) and metallic (type M). Estimates suggest that there are more than 1,500 such asteroids, which offer attractive incentives for further exploration.
Asteroids contain large amounts of valuable resources such as iron, nickel, platinum, gold, rhodium, and magnesium. And the extraction of these essential metals from asteroids is known as asteroid mining. Scientists hypothesize that asteroids harbor valuable resources with concentrations many times greater than Earth. Interesting way, previous research shows that asteroids may have delivered many valuable mineral deposits to Earth while the planet was still forming.
On the other hand, asteroids also contain large amounts of water, which could be used for future space missions by converting it into fuel to support longer missions. These aspects make asteroids an untapped treasure of the cosmic world!
What is the value of asteroids?
Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once told CNBC that the first trillionaire would be the one who exploits the natural resources of asteroids.
According to estimates, the value of minerals found in the asteroid belt could earn every individual on Earth $ 100 billion at the current rate. For example, an asteroid named Psyche 16 contains enough nickel-iron to meet Earth’s demand for several million years and has enough gold to make every person a millionaire. In total, the value of this asteroid is estimated at 10 trillion dollars. As a result, several space agencies, including the US space agency NASA, have embarked on the exploration of these asteroids.
One of NASA’s most ambitious missions revolves around this asteroid to explore its metal-rich content and is expected to reach 16 Psyche by 2026. However, NASA has reaffirmed that the mission is focused on scientific investigations of the asteroid and has no plans to explore mining prospects. Nonetheless, 16 Psyche has become the most sought-after candidate for future asteroid mining.
How do we get to the asteroids and bring back mined material?
On October 20, 2020, humanity reached a milestone when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission successfully stored ground samples from the asteroid Bennu in the spacecraft’s capsule. But, unfortunately, it will take another two years for the spacecraft to deposit the samples on Earth by September 2023.
In addition, the Japanese mission Hayabusa also successfully collected and returned samples from the asteroid. These missions demonstrate the technical prowess of landing on low gravity asteroids and recovering minerals on Earth. Completing the entire mining process remains a difficult hurdle and plans are still in their infancy. Nonetheless, several space agencies and startups are targeting near-Earth asteroids to mine and extract resources.
Planetary Resource, the first company to announce its asteroid mining plans in 2012, explained in one of its earlier statements: “We can reach them (near-Earth asteroids) with very little propulsion. In addition, it is relatively easy to move away from them and return to Earth due to their very small gravity field and orbits. Asteroid mining will provide sustainable resources on Earth and help maintain a human presence in space. “
Another idea of asteroid mining is to divert the asteroid’s path to a safe orbit around the Earth, the Moon, or the International Space Station (ISS). Another alternative includes dismantling missions using swarms of miniature satellites called CubeSat. Additionally, to extract water, experts have suggested an optical extraction method that works on the heat of the sun to remove water from the rock.
Another sustainable method of reaching distant objects is to use electric motors for mining, which require less fuel. However, one of the hardest parts of missions is still bringing precious metals back to Earth. As technology demonstration and science are still in their infancy, some ideas include storing them on reusable rockets or using 3D printing technologies.
If things go as planned, this seemingly sci-fi plot will soon be a reality. Among many others, the main advantage lies in the alternatives it offers to slow the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources. This decade is set to revolutionize the face of space exploration, notably by taking a step forward in the field of asteroid mining.
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