Space mining: The next big resource-rich prize are asteroids
“Planet Earth is running out of resources” for humans to continue their march towards wherever they want to go, many environmentalists and scientists say.
No one would like to go back to living like cave people, so technology and innovation may allow us to think about new ways of getting the raw materials we need to continue growing as a civilization.
Many people, especially rich entrepreneurs have their eyes on the next big resource-rich prize: Asteroids.
A new era of what is called space mining seems to be upon us all, as more brainpower is dedicated to figuring out how to land on and extract minerals from these giant, flying objects.
Some people are even running calculations to use small planets as launching stations from where humans could ‘catch’ passing asteroids and begin extracting all their rich elements.
One of the planets that could become a temporary home for humans is Ceres. Ceres was discovered because astronomers assumed that planets should exist at that distance from the Sun.
Why? Because, taking as a unit the distance from the Earth to the Sun or astronomical unit (AU), the respective distances of the planets to the Sun approached the sequence 0.4 for Mercury, 0.7 for Venus, 1 for Earth, 1.6 for Mars and so on.
That sequence showed a term between 1.6 and 5.2 was missing. Records show that while looking for a planet at that distance, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first body of the asteroid belt, the dwarf planet Ceres, in 1801.
Neptune had not yet been discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, and its distance from the Sun is 30.1 AU.
Both Neptune and Ceres are often used as examples of celestial bodies discovered from mathematical considerations that indicated where to look for them, but there is a substantial difference between both cases:
Ceres was discovered outside any astrophysical consideration, simply because a term in a numerical sequence that followed a certain pattern was missing.
While the mathematical calculations that led to the discovery of Neptune, in 1847, were derived from the observation of certain disturbances in the orbits of Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter.
But what do you want to extract from these asteroids?
Many of the natural elements that exist on earth came from space. Most of them arrived when meteorites or asteroids collided with Earth.
There are also many elements that are unknown to humans and that would need to be studied before they can become part of industrial processes.
Asteroids closest to Earth (NEA: Near Earth Asteroids) could become, in the not too distant future, sources of raw materials.
As we saw, in Ceres there is abundant ice water, and there is also in many C-type asteroids (carbonaceous), and that water could allow space vehicles to refuel oxygen to breathe and hydrogen as fuel.
In addition, in the metal asteroids, there can be, easily removable, large amounts of platinum and other metals that are scarce on Earth.
The almost zero severity of asteroids would have, in the face of hypothetical space mining, its advantages, and disadvantages.
On the one hand, sending the extracted materials to a space station or another planet for processing would be much easier and cheaper as it did not have to reach any escape velocity. But, on the other hand, that same lack of gravity would make the tasks difficult, since both the materials extracted and the equipment used and the operators themselves, whether humans or robots, should somehow be anchored to the asteroids themselves.
Since each action on the surface of the asteroid would cause a reaction of the opposite sign, the lack of attraction would result in an apparent “repulsion” that would hinder all kinds of unexpected challenges.
There is then a need to create some kind of anchoring and transport system to facilitate a hypothetical mining exploitation of asteroids if it were carried out with current technological resources.