Com­ment Hu­mans on the cusp of a new fron­tier in space

Birmingham Post - - NEWS -

Smelt­ing an as­ter­oid for raw ma­te­ri­als might sound like sci­ence fic­tion, but there are now sev­eral com­mer­cial or­gan­i­sa­tions hell bent on ex­actly this strat­egy.

Deep Space In­dus­tries and Plan­e­tary Re­sources are both US com­pa­nies es­tab­lished with the spe­cific pur­pose of ex­ploit­ing as­teroids.

They are cur­rently plan­ning ro­botic mis­sions to as­teroids that are be­lieved to con­tain an abun­dance of use­ful raw ma­te­ri­als.

Mean­while, NASA is plan­ning the As­ter­oid Re­di­rect mis­sion, a se­ri­ous at­tempt to change the or­bit of a small as­ter­oid and shift it into a new or­bit around the moon, thus fa­cil­i­tat­ing hu­man ex­plo­ration by as­tro­nauts.

As­teroids are mas­sive ob­jects and per­suad­ing an as­ter­oid to change or­bit won’t be easy. Need­less to say, they’re look­ing for a quite small one with an or­bit that isn’t that dis­sim­i­lar from the Earth-Moon dou­ble sys­tem any­way.

When­ever we look at this kind of very ex­cit­ing pre­dic­tion we have to be care­ful to dis­tin­guish be­tween fan­tasy and real en­gi­neer­ing projects that might be com­pleted in the near fu­ture.

The ex­act min­eral com­po­si­tion of the two tar­get­ted as­teroids should be clear within the next few years (it will take time for these ro­bot prospec­tors to fly home) and even if the min­er­als sound promis­ing, NASA and other space or­gan­i­sa­tions will have to fig­ure out a way to ex­tract and smelt the ma­te­rial in air­less deep space.

If they can do this, space ex­plo­ration could change for­ever. No longer would space agen­cies try to launch mas­sive space­craft into or­bit.

They would in­stead launch smelt­ing plants into close prox­im­ity to a cap­tured as­ter­oid and use the raw ma­te­ri­als therein to con­struct pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able struc­tures in deep space.

So what are the chances of any­body mak­ing money out of as­teroids?

Well, in the short term, not much. If an as­ter­oid were made of pure di­a­mond, it still wouldn’t be cost ef­fec­tive to re­turn the ma­te­rial to the Earth.

In spite of this, NASA has long been in­ter­ested in the as­teroids. For some time now, NASA plan­ners have

If an as­ter­oid were made of pure di­a­mond, it still wouldn’t be cost ef­fec­tive to re­turn the ma­te­rial to the Earth

sug­gested that a Near Earth As­ter­oid should be the next heav­enly body to be vis­ited by as­tro­nauts.

As­teroids are rel­a­tively small and have very lit­tle grav­ity. For some of the smaller bod­ies, an as­tro­naut stand­ing on one could prob­a­bly achieve ‘es­cape ve­loc­ity’ by sim­ply jump­ing from the sur­face.

The tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenge of reach­ing an as­ter­oid would be rel­a­tively mi­nor in com­par­i­son to a manned ex­pe­di­tion to Mars and the mis­sion would give us the op­por­tu­nity to test life sup­port sys­tems far be­yond the Earth.

Such a mis­sion is cred­i­ble and might do a lot to rein­vig­o­rate in­ter­est in hu­man space ex­plo­ration be­yond low Earth or­bit.

The com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion of an as­ter­oid is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent mat­ter and I can’t help but feel that some of the start-up com­pa­nies in­volved are hope­lessly op­ti­mistic.

A plethora of op­ti­mistic hi-tech firms are now ap­pear­ing with the sole ob­jec­tive of re­triev­ing and min­ing an as­ter­oid.

How­ever, us­ing cur­rent tech­nol­ogy, it would not be com­mer­cially vi­able to re­turn such min­eral ores to the Earth.

Even if the rub­ble from an as­ter­oid were more valu­able than di­a­monds, you still lose money in the re­trieval process.

Yes, our knowl­edge of as­teroids is about to go bal­lis­tic, but don’t ex­pect to see the ben­e­fits any time soon. Steve Cutts is also the au­thor of the space ad­ven­ture

novel

> An im­age of as­ter­oid Ryugu sent back from the Ja­panese Hayabusa2 space­craft

> An il­lus­tra­tion of Hayabusa2

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