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asteroid mining in future
Learn to know- is asteroid mining in future is possible? Its regulations and current missions.
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Here on the Earth there are so many excavation projects researching for the ancestral life style, learning, building modern buildings, searching for treasure, fossil fuel to keep up the pace in advancement of our living.  We on Earth have never settled satisfying with things at our reach and have always gone far and the long reach have always given us exciting findings.  Let’s learn more on the asteroid mining in future, as you read further.

There comes the big leap of  landing, exploring & researching distant planets, stars, galaxies and also the ‘asteroids’. There are many happenings, nations’ interests, measured approaches & business in researching these asteroids, get ready!

What are Asteroids?

The residuals from the early formation of the solar system or debris from the destruction of other planets are referred to Asteroids. There are nearly a million asteroids flying in our Solar system, and most are identified inside the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Asteroid mining in future – What it means?

It is the extraction of minerals and other raw materials from these asteroids and a few other minor planets. The raw materials found in this process include and not limited to silver, gold, platinum, rhodium, nickel, aluminum, manganese, iron, and cobalt. Minerals and other materials mined in space could be either used in space as fuel for space vehicles or as construction materials for the space station programmes. It also used for more potential chemical & scientific breakthrough and for fancy sale.

The cost of asteroid mining with uncertainty on discoveries and material transportation are seen as a few challenges in the arena. Potential mining targets and optimal techniques are being globally researched. With the continued uncontrolled exploitation of the natural resources on Earth and its fear of depletion propel the demand for asteroid mining in future.

Mining Feasibility study and Monetization –

Ventures are keen on the treasures behind the space mining.  One of the reports from NASA estimates that the mineral wealth present in the asteroid belt would exceed $100 billion for each of the six billion people on Earth.  

Although the technical and financial parameters are radically different from what we used to see in the traditional mining feasibility studies. The principles of appraising a mineral deposit should remain the same. 

Mining pre-work

Even without a manned mission to do a full-scale study of an asteroid,  Scientists  have researched this subject through cost effective remote sensing techniques that can be considered as a pre case study of data collection for, far more expensive manned missions. 

For say, the telescopic spectroscopy, which analyzes light reflected from the asteroid’s surface is used to find out what might be there. In addition to iron, nickel and magnesium, scientists think water, oxygen, gold and platinum also exist on some asteroids which makes asteroid mining in future more important.

The asteroids are categorized to 3 main variants, based on their composition and we do have theories associated to the extraction cost of each of the variants.

Types of Asteroids: 

  • Type C:  

Most  or nearly 75% of known asteroids are of this category. These are composed of items similar to that of the sun, excluding the hydrogen, helium and other volatile substances.  High proportion of phosphorous and organic carbon, which can be used in fertilizer manufacture are also found here.   The presence of high proportion of water, is believed to reduce the cost of a mining mission on these variants.

  • Type S :  

Close to 17% of asteroids are of this cateogory. These contain deposits of nickel, iron and magnesium.    A relatively lesser proportion of water presence would compared to the type C help offset the increased cost of mining here.

  • Type M :  

The remaining small proportion of less than 10% of asteroids are of this type, and they contain nickel and iron.  They are believed to hold 10 times more metal present in an S-type asteroid.

Having known about the variants and a hint on the expense, let us also know about the regulations in place. 

Also learn, top 10 space apps for android 2021


Asteroid Mining Regulations in future

As with all global mining efforts there are regulations that would help guide, govern and control the asteroid mining management for safety and regulatory reasons. The Outer Space Affairs, UN has established 5 international space agreements and declarations that help define international space law. These legal documents lay clauses on freedom to explore, registration of outer space activities, weapons control, responsibility for damages, astronauts’ rescue and conflict negotiations.  

The Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement are prominent ones that discuss the asteroid mining  – extraction, ownership of natural resources. 

The more widely accepted Outer Space Treaty was enacted in 1967 after a decade of international discussions among around 100 countries.  This document sets forth the idea that space belongs to all of humankind and that all countries have the right to explore and use materials from space for benefits to humankind, however the concept of humankind is left ambiguous. So asteroid mining in future is challenging mission to all countries.

Water & Mining mission

Water being the elixir of life, it interests space explorers the most.  Without water, human exploration of space is highly dim.  Presence of water in these asteroids in any indirect form could be decoupled to hydrogen and oxygen for rocket engine fuel.  

Extraction mission – Challenges and techniques:

Asteroids have amazing potential for a promising industry. But how are we planning to land on a spinning asteroid, locate valuable materials, extract and process them? These questions makes an asteroid mining in future a doubtful.

Asteroid Extraction and Processing

Image an on-going mining mission in the space – it could be similar to that of an excavation here on earth at a building construction site.  However, there on the space we need expensive Spacecraft that will have to carry the precision devices for the work, food and supplies for the workers. 

This spacecraft should land on the target asteroid.   Okay, after landing, the next challenge will be on how to mine on a rotating asteroid.   There are proposals on counteracting the asteroid spin using rocket thrusts.   There could be innovative solutions with pneumatic drillers without physically placed bases or to grate the whole mass from one end and ash it down through its core.

Again, efficient transport and processing solutions are under discovery. Usage of solar power, chemical engineering of material & gases for fuel, unmanned robotics, light-weight machineries for mechanics, avoidance of residual space dust with large canopies – are a few areas, researches are in progress in the context.  Mining operations require sophisticated devices in extracting and processing of ore in outer space.This makes asteroid mining in future more complicated.

The machinery will need to be docked to the body, and the extracts can be moved with ease due to the lack of gravity; absence of techniques to refine in zero gravity is to be accounted for. 

Extraction techniques

  • Surface mining

Granular ore can be scraped off the surface however, existence of piled up rubbles make challenge this approach.

  • Shaft mining

An identified zone in asteroid can be drilled to extract the items underneath by a shaft.

  • Magnetic rakes

This option can be chosen to pick up magnetic materials – efficient electromagnetic technology can be used to attract the items with magnetic properties.  The intensity of magnetism and the weight of potential magnetic items are to be precisely calculated.

  • Heating

Carbonaceous chondrites that contain hydrated minerals can be extracted by heating and condensing the vapor into liquid.  For volatile materials in extinct comets, heat can be used to melt and vaporize the matrix.

  • Mond process

The nickel and iron rich target asteroids can be best suited to apply the Mond process.  In this process, Carbon monoxide is puffed over the asteroid at a controlled environment of temperature & high pressure and further processed.  This may involve non-human resources and robotics are a good choice for a risk free management of gaseous environment.

Also learn The upcoming missions of ISRO 2021

Last mile access of extracts:

Thus extracted ore can be transported & accessed by one of more of the options like 

  • In-space manufacturing (ISM), enabled by biomining.
  • Bring raw ore for use / further processing to Earth.
  • Process it on-site to bring back only processed materials, and produce propellant for the return trip.
  • Transport the asteroid to a safe orbit around the Moon or Earth or to the ISS.

Satellite search Technology being developed by Planetary Resources to locate and capitalize the gains from asteroids has resulted in the plans for three different types of satellites:

  • Arkyd Series 100  – is on the Leo Space telescope and is a less expensive one that will be used to search, analyze, and locate the resources available on nearby asteroids.
  • Arkyd Series 200 – is the Interceptor Satellite that actually lands on the asteroid to get a closer review of the target resource.
  • Arkyd Series 300 – is the Rendezvous Prospector Satellite for search operations deeper in space.

Spacecraft Technologies:

Deep Space Industries are researching the following spacecraft technologies to research and extract asteroids:

  • 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.

Who is involved in this Asteroid Mining?

We are at the beginning of a spike in the asteroid mining technological development.  The current research is spread across cost benefit analysis, detection, navigation and transportation.  Once promising findings on the benefit is evident, the interests will bring together the nations and organizations collaborate and build a better scape. 

Within the next 30 years the countries will work on earth and the main belt’s telecommunications and navigation facilitations.  Anyhow, asteroid mining in future remains mystery and a curious mission among all the countries.

Key Events in Asteroid Mining:

  • Hayabusa2 is an asteroid sample return mission by JAXA, Japan that reached the target asteroid in 2018, and brought back the sample in 2020.
  • OSIRIS-REx  is an ongoing NASA mission launched in 2016 to the target asteroid, Bennu and bring back a sample to Earth in 2023.
  • Fobos-Grunt 2  is a proposed Roskosmos sample return Russian mission to Phobos with a planned launch in 2024.

The list will expand as we progress and expand our writing and discovery in this domain in the coming years.

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