Asteroid Mining, the Next Frontier

It is common knowledge that the Earth is running out of resources, we’re constantly plagued with images and statistics supporting renewable energy and changing our way of thinking but what if we gathered resources from Space and gave the Earth a break from human pillaging? This is an idea from companies such as Planetary Resources whose co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson says the ‘limitless resources’ from Space will help drive the world’s economy and prosperity in the future.

Asteroid mining is a new idea in the early stages of development, which supports the exploration of materials from asteroids and other Near Earth Objects (NEOs). It is thought that these minerals and extracts could be used not just on Earth but in Space for construction or to make rocket propellant. Mining asteroids could be the beginning of an economy in orbit, spacecraft propellant alone could be a multi-billion dollar industry. The government of Luxembourg has even shown its support for this new industry, throwing its financial strength into the plans to extract resources from asteroids.

This chart illustrates how infrared is used to more accurately determine an asteroid’s size. Image Credit – NASA/JPL-Caltech

Deep Space Industries is another company that is hoping to exploit the material on asteroids. CEO David Gump said that mining asteroids could even help with Mars Exploration as 90% of the weight lifted by a rocket to Mars is fuel. This is an issue that can be resolved if fuel was available in orbit as it would also make the trip cheaper and more efficient. However Deep Space is a new player in the asteroid mining game and has tough competition with Planetary Resources who already have many investors including filmmaker James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page.

Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA) Clasification. It also represents the Asteroid Belt and the Earth and Mars orbits. Image Credit: ESA

There are a group of asteroids that spend part of their orbit between 0.98 and 1.3 AU, keeping in mind the Earth is 1 AU from the Sun. This population of asteroids is known as Near Earth Asteroids and most have spent part of their lives in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter or had a previous life as a comet. In 1960 there were only 20 known Near Earth Asteroids but today we know of over 15,000 and scientists expect this number to eventually exceed one million. Near Earth Asteroids are categorised into 3 groups; the Atens, Apollos and Amors depending on their distances from the Sun. Out of all 15,000 Near Earth Asteroids over 900 are over 1000m in length and it’s predicted there are 20,000 medium sized Near Earth Asteroids between 100m and 1000m in size. So there is no shortage of asteroids to visit near Earth as its predicted 700 – 800 are easier to reach than the Moon, a mission that has been done numerous times and at a time when technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today.

Image depicting the size of Near Earth Asteroids. It is hard for scientists to tell just how many NEAs there are that are less than 100m – Image credit: NASA

Gold and Platinum can be found on certain asteroids, as can water, silicon, nickel and iron which are expected to be at the centre of a new space economy. Silicon can be used in solar power equipment and the other metals can be used in construction.  The water can be mined and broken down, using hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for humans to breathe in space. It is estimated that there are over 42 trillion tons of potential resource in Near Earth Asteroids. Iron ore for example is one of the most abundant materials on the Earth and The US Geological Survey estimates that there are 800 tonnes available worldwide.  The content of iron on Near Earth Asteroids is expected to be 50 times larger than what is available on the Earth so there is no doubt it could be a profitable venture.

Two near Earth Asteroids have been visited in the past, 433 Eros by NASA’s NEAR mission and 25143 Itokawa by Japan’s Hayabusa Mission. Hayabusa was launched on the 9th of May 2003 and reached its target in 2005. After two attempts it collected samples of the asteroid and returned it to Earth in 2010.  The Hayabusa mission taught scientists much about asteroids and landing on the surface, now that they have learnt from the weak points in the previous mission, Hayabusa 2 was put into progress and launched in 2010. It is expected to arrive at its target, 162173 Ryugu in July 2018. The operations at the asteroid will be similar to the original Hayabusa mission but with an explosive device to dig below the asteroids surface.

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch Sept. 8, 2016, at 7:05 p.m. EDT. As planned, the spacecraft will reach its asteroid target in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023. Image Cradit – NASA

NASA is also working on a new asteroid bound mission called OSIRIS – REx which will visit the carbonaceous asteroid known as Bennu in 2018. Bennu is also a potentially hazardous asteroid that has a high probability of impacting the Earth in the late 22nd Century. This mission will not only examine the resources of the asteroid but also look at the physical and chemical makeup to help with future impact mitigation missions.

Near Earth Asteroids are easier to reach than main belt asteroids, in fact many suggest they are easier to reach than the Moon.  42 trillion tons of resources are available within 45 million km of Earth orbit whilst the Moon is 384,000km from the Earth at its closest approach. Therefore some asteroids are located up to 110 lunar distances away. However when heading out to asteroids it can be thought of in terms of energy as 60% of the energy a rocket uses is for getting off the ground and orbiting the Earth at 200km. A further 30% is needed to escape Earth’s gravitational pull leaving 10% for navigation and rendezvousing with a Near Earth Asteroid.  Therefore energetically asteroids can be easier to reach than the Moon, a venture already undertaken a number of times.

Although this business deal sounds promising there comes the question of legalities as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 strictly forbids the ownership of celestial bodies. In 2015 former US President Barack Obama put forward a bill to allow the ownership of asteroids including being able to transport them and sell them, however this was a clear violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The only way for a private company to gain access to mining asteroids would be through a court case, according to Dr Chris Newman of the University of Sunderland. However Sagi Kfir of Deep Space Industries says asteroid mining is legal because of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that Obama put forward. He states that no international space law or treaty prohibits the use or extraction of space resources; however this is something that may cause issues as this business starts to expand. These issues faced the samples of the Moon brought back to Earth by NASA astronauts that are considered the property of the United States while some of the samples brought back by Russia have been sold on. Therefore there are still big questions that need resolving before this business can fully get off the ground.

Despite the legal issues and the boundaries of technology, asteroid mining looks likely to go ahead one day. Companies and space agencies may benefit from it as they venture further into our Solar System. Just think of the possibilities if humanity can use asteroids to make fuel.  Mars may be the next big step, but who knows what and where humans could be exploring if asteroids do become a staple resource for the trip.

For any further information about Asteroids and Asteroid Mining, the Armagh Planetarium is showing “Asteroid: Mission Extreme,” Monday to Saturday at 2pm until 30th November.


Article by Samantha Rotherham