As­teroids will be plun­dered for ma­te­ri­als and fuel

Focus-Science and Technology - - LEAVING EARTH -

A new era of space ex­plo­ration be­gan in Jan­uary 2018 with rel­a­tively lit­tle fan­fare. A tiny satel­lite – Arkyd-6 – was lofted into or­bit on board an In­dian rocket. De­signed and built by US out­fit Plan­e­tary Re­sources, it’s an asteroid scout tasked with search­ing out po­ten­tially mine­able space rocks.

The thing about space ex­plo­ration is that it’s a con­stant fight against the re­lent­less down­wards tug of Earth’s grav­ity. Tak­ing ev­ery­thing you need with you from the out­set means hav­ing to out­run our planet’s pull, and that’s su­per-ex­pen­sive. It costs thou­sands of dol­lars to launch a sin­gle kilogram into or­bit, even with the re­cent ad­vances in rocket tech­nol­ogy by com­pa­nies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Far bet­ter to launch light, har­vest­ing what you need from space. And there are few places more en­tic­ing than as­teroids.

As left­over build­ing blocks from the for­ma­tion of our So­lar Sys­tem, as­teroids are rich in pre­cious com­modi­ties such as plat­inum, tung­sten and iron. The temp­ta­tion they of­fer has trig­gered the cos­mic equiv­a­lent of the fa­mous Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Last year, Lux­em­bourg be­came the first Euro­pean coun­try to pass a law that al­lows asteroid mining com­pa­nies in the coun­try to keep what they find in space. Mean­while in the UK, Scot­tish aerospace com­pany Asteroid Mining Cor­po­ra­tion is cur­rently try­ing to raise £2.3m to build satel­lites ca­pable of iden­ti­fy­ing plat­inum on near-Earth as­teroids. In the com­ing years, com­pa­nies could send proof-of­con­cept probes to ex­plore some of the 17,000 as­teroids deemed close enough to reach eco­nom­i­cally, with es­ti­mates sug­gest­ing that an asteroid would have to con­tain com­modi­ties worth in ex­cess of $1bn to make the dar­ing trip worth it. The po­ten­tial re­wards are huge: some com­men­ta­tors sug­gest asteroid mining could pro­duce the world’s first trillionaire.

For now, though, as­teroids of­fer some­thing even more vi­tal for fu­ture space­far­ers: ice. Frozen wa­ter is the space equiv­a­lent of gold. Melt it and you have wa­ter to drink and wash with. But that’s only scratch­ing the sur­face of ice’s po­ten­tial: one look at its fa­mous chem­i­cal struc­ture – H2O – tells you it’s made of both hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen. You can har­vest breath­able air from ice, as well as us­ing the hy­dro­gen for fuel. It means that as­teroids could be­come the cos­mic petrol sta­tions of the fu­ture: dock, fill up and con­tinue your jour­ney. Mars, with its abun­dant ice in glaciers and po­lar caps, could also be a valu­able pit stop.


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