Comment Humans on the cusp of a new frontier in space
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
> An image of asteroid Ryugu sent back from the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft
> An illustration of Hayabusa2