Asteroid mining


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 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.

Purpose

Based on known terrestrial reserves, and growing consumption in both developed and developing countries, key elements needed for modern industry and food production could be exhausted on Earth within 50 to 60 years. These include phosphorus, antimony, zinc, tin, lead, indium, silver, gold and copper.[citation needed] In response, it has been suggested that platinum, cobalt and other valuable elements from asteroids may be mined and sent to Earth for profit, used to build solar-power satellites and space habitats, and water processed from ice to refuel orbiting propellant depots.

Although asteroids and Earth accreted from the same starting materials, Earth's relatively stronger gravity pulled all heavy siderophilic (iron-loving) elements into its core during its molten youth more than four billion years ago. This left the crust depleted of such valuable elements until a rain of asteroid impacts re-infused the depleted crust with metals like gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten (some flow from core to surface does occur, e.g. at the Bushveld Igneous Complex, a famously rich source of platinum-group metals)[citation needed]. Today, these metals are mined from Earth's crust, and they are essential for economic and technological progress. Hence, the geologic history of Earth may very well set the stage for a future of asteroid mining.

In 2006, the Keck Observatory announced that the binary Jupiter trojan 617 Patroclus, and possibly large numbers of other Jupiter trojans, are likely extinct comets and consist largely of water ice. Similarly, Jupiter-family comets, and possibly near-Earth asteroids that are extinct comets, might also provide water. The process of in-situ resource utilization—using materials native to space for propellant, thermal management, tankage, radiation shielding, and other high-mass components of space infrastructure—could lead to radical reductions in its cost. Although whether these cost reductions could be achieved, and if achieved would offset the enormous infrastructure investment required, is unknown.

Ice would satisfy one of two necessary conditions to enable "human expansion into the Solar System" (the ultimate goal for human space flight proposed by the 2009 "Augustine Commission" Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee): physical sustainability and economic sustainability.

From the astrobiological perspective, asteroid prospecting could provide scientific data for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Some astrophysicists have suggested that if advanced extraterrestrial civilizations employed asteroid mining long ago, the hallmarks of these activities might be detectable.

Mining considerations

There are three options for mining:

Bring raw asteroidal material to Earth for use.
Process it on-site to bring back only processed materials, and perhaps produce propellant for the return trip.
Transport the asteroid to a safe orbit around the Moon, Earth or to the ISS. This can hypothetically allow for most materials to be used and not wasted.
Processing in situ for the purpose of extracting high-value minerals will reduce the energy requirements for transporting the materials, although the processing facilities must first be transported to the mining site. In situ mining will involve drilling boreholes and injecting hot fluid/gas and allow the useful material to react or melt with the solvent and the extract the solute. Due to the weak gravitational fields of asteroids, any drilling will cause large disturbances and form dust clouds.

Mining operations require special equipment to handle the extraction and processing of ore in outer space. The machinery will need to be anchored to the body,[citation needed] but once in place, the ore can be moved about more readily due to the lack of gravity. However, no techniques for refining ore in zero gravity currently exist. Docking with an asteroid might be performed using a harpoon-like process, where a projectile would penetrate the surface to serve as an anchor; then an attached cable would be used to winch the vehicle to the surface, if the asteroid is both penetrable and rigid enough for a harpoon to be effective.

Due to the distance from Earth to an asteroid selected for mining, the round-trip time for communications will be several minutes or more, except during occasional close approaches to Earth by near-Earth asteroids. Thus any mining equipment will either need to be highly automated, or a human presence will be needed nearby. Humans would also be useful for troubleshooting problems and for maintaining the equipment. On the other hand, multi-minute communications delays have not prevented the success of robotic exploration of Mars, and automated systems would be much less expensive to build and deploy.

Technology being developed by Planetary Resources to locate and harvest these asteroids has resulted in the plans for three different types of satellites:

Arkyd Series 100 (the Leo Space telescope) is a less expensive instrument that will be used to find, analyze, and see what resources are available on nearby asteroids.
Arkyd Series 200 (the Interceptor) Satellite that would actually land on the asteroid to get a closer analysis of the available resources.
Arkyd Series 300 (Rendezvous Prospector) Satellite developed for research and finding resources deeper in space.
Technology being developed by Deep Space Industries to examine, sample, and harvest asteroids is divided into three families of spacecraft:

FireFlies are triplets of nearly identical spacecraft in CubeSat form launched to different asteroids to rendezvous and examine them.
DragonFlies also are launched in waves of three nearly identical spacecraft to gather small samples (5–10 kg) and return them to Earth for analysis.
Harvestors voyage out to asteroids to gather hundreds of tons of material for return to high Earth orbit for processing.
Asteroid mining could potentially revolutionize space exploration.[original research?] The C-type asteroids's high abundance of water could be used to produce fuel by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. This would make space travel a more feasible option by lowering cost of fuel. While the cost of fuel is a relatively insignificant factor in the overall cost for low earth orbit manned space missions, storing it and the size of the craft become a much bigger factor for interplanetary missions. Typically 1 kg in orbit is equivalent to more than 10 kg on the ground (for a Falcon 9 1.0 it would need 250 tons of fuel to put 5 tons in GEO orbit or 10 tons in LEO).[citation needed] This limitation is a major factor in the difficulty of interplanetary missions as fuel becomes payload.

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