Several privately-funded space companies are locked in a race for trillions of precious metals to exist in asteroids. Britain has now entered the race, with the Asteroid Mining Corporation becoming the first of these new companies in the country.
In theory, the business case speaks for itself ̵
Asteroids can be classified as consisting of carbon, silicon or metal. Mining companies are particularly interested in metallic asteroids, but their compositions are still not well understood. Scientific investigations of asteroids – such as the NASA study of the smaller planets – have focused largely on detecting potential threats to our planet through collisions.
So far no asteroid has been directly sampled. Telescope observations have been made along with analyzes of meteorite fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth, and the data suggest that a small percentage of asteroids contain high concentrations of valuable metals such as platinum and gold. So, before we dream of spending our trillions, we must first look for suitable asteroid mines.
More than 750,000 asteroids have been identified so far. The vast majority can be excluded immediately as they are found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – too far away to be considered potential mine targets. Instead, we should focus on the asteroids near Earth, which limit the search to about 17,000 targets. Narrowing satellite observations with a telescope and spectrographic instrumentation are also required.
A spectrograph analyzes the sunlight reflected from the surface of an asteroid by breaking it down into different wavelengths. This allows us to determine the composition of the surface. For example, if the light from an asteroid appears reddish in color, this indicates the presence of iron and nickel clusters on the surface. Platinum is normally found in such clusters on Earth, so we can conclude that it might occur in these asteroids. However, we can only observe how light interacts with the surface of the asteroid – not with the underlying layers. And the surface could have been altered by collisions with other solar system objects or by radiation.
When choosing an asteroid we need to find out if it is sufficiently large and if it has a sufficiently high concentration of valuable and widely used metal. Is it moving too fast? How far is it in orbit and how long will it take to send a probe?
According to Professor Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, an asteroid that is worth mining has a market value of $ 1 billion. To meet this requirement, the asteroid must have a diameter of more than 1 km, contain more than 10 parts per million platinum and have a velocity relative to the earth's velocity of less than 4.5 meters per second. There are more than 17,000 near-earth asteroids, but how many of them fit the bill?
Professor Elvis made a theoretical estimate based on probabilities and assumptions. Of all the meteorites that fell to Earth, about 4% were metallic. We can therefore assume that 4% of the near-Earth asteroids are also metallic. Taking into account these and other probabilities, we have only 10 asteroids available, which – theoretically – are economically viable and practically degradable.
Since the targets have not yet been directly identified, the task now is to find them in the haystacks. The first design phase for a prospecting satellite is in progress and the Asteroid Mining Corporation intends to launch it by 2020. This would go into a near-Earth orbit and search the sky for near-Earth asteroids to collect spectral data and determine its composition to identify specific targets. As part of my report, I will identify the area and resolution of the spectrograph needed to determine the composition. I will also design a temporary telescope.
The next goal would be to launch a probe, collect samples for detailed chemical analysis, and photograph the surface of the target to identify a possible landing pad. The ultimate goal would be to land a mine on the surface of the target and extract precious metals in situ. Many different techniques have been proposed. However, this would be an incredibly ambitious engineering achievement, not to be underestimated, with many unanswered questions and unknown dates at this early stage.
There are not only technical challenges to overcome. At present, there are concerns about the legal implications of this burgeoning industry in the face of the lack of laws and regulations governing the international nature of space exploration. The United Nations oversaw the space deal signed by 106 countries. This provides a framework for the management of space activities, but does not provide the necessary detailed legislation.
There are fears that the situation could become the new Wild West, with a lack of laws that lead to disputes over who has the rights to mine a given asteroid. There is currently no mechanism against these allegations, and the legal situation is complex.
The challenges are considerable – and although it may be some time before we see the first trillionaires of space debris, it is undeniable that the prospect of asteroid mining is helping to attract funds and accelerate scientific understanding. New instrumentation and engineering technologies are being developed to address the practical challenges of mining asteroids, and a detailed asteroid composition database would aid the scientific understanding of the formation and evolution of our solar system. Watch this room.
Asteroid mining could start in 10-20 years, says industry expert