The Earth isn’t getting any younger. We humans have expanded at an alarming rate, breaching a population of 7 billion. We continue to snatch precious materials from this rock of a planet, burning through vast quantities of fossil fuels, whilst depleting uranium supplies and both base and precious metals (such as copper and aluminium). Although the various industries struggle onward, it is becoming increasingly difficult and more expensive and environmentally-unfriendly to extract the afore-mentioned resources. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), however, plan to radically change the method by which we collect resources, in the future, and are preparing to launch a mission to explore the prospect of asteroid mining.
Asteroids represent a vast, untapped well of potential resource. These rocks were formed around the same time as the universe, floating around in space with little point to their existence. There are three main categories of asteroid, as part of what is known as the Tholen classification, which are further sub-divided to include a number of types.
NASA’s official website explains the most important asteroids, based upon their resource potential:
“C-type” carbonaceous asteroids:
- Represent sizable banks of water, which could be tapped during future space exploration in water-barren regions
- Water may be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, to be used as a source of rocket fuel
- Organic phosphate and carbon may enable manufacture of fertilizer
“S-type” silicaceous asteroids:
- Abundant in various sources of metal, predominately iron, nickel and magnesium silicates
- Contains trace amounts of precious metals (e.g. platinum)
“M-type” metallic asteroids:
These are described as metallic asteroids, and represent a large source of metals, chiefly iron
Now, focusing upon NASA’s planned asteroid mining mission, the space agency is preparing to launch the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (thankfully, abbreviated to OSIRIS-REX) to begin exploration of a regional asteroid, called Bennu.
The launch date will take place in September 2016, but the craft is not expected to reach Bennu until late 2018.
Quite excitingly, not only does this ground-breaking mission represent an opportunity to learn more about asteroid mining, it may also provide cosmic clues, concerning how the universe formed all those billions of years ago.
Upon arrival, the OSIRIS-REX spacecraft will scope out the asteroid from a distance and use its onboard tools, called spectrometers, to interpret the best possible mining sites. These spectrometers have the capacity to measure variations in the different light intensities, thereby, ascertaining the composition of a particular substance.
In total, the complex machine will house 3 spectrometers, each capable of determining the light intensity of a different wavelength:
- Infrared spectrometer: enables recognition of organic materials, comprising of carbon atoms, and minerals. These carbon-containing substances are one of the most important findings, as they can be used to support life, as on Earth. As discussed earlier, such discoveries could lead to an enhanced understanding of the origins of life.
- X-ray spectrometer: helps to determine the location of a number of elements, such as iron and magnesium
- Thermal emission spectrometer: determines topographical properties of the asteroid by measuring the heat emitted at certain points. Such data are likely to identify areas of water and clay minerals.
As the waves projected by these spectrometers are ineffective at penetrating thick materials, the contraption will also be fitted with a device that ejects nitrogen gas to separate surface material, and allow thorough collection of deeper samples.
Aside from this, transmission and reflection of laser light pulses can provide a global, 3-dimensional picture of the asteroid, whilst also highlighting key areas of mineral deposits.
As of yet, NASA’s prepared mission is likely to be time-consuming and expensive, with an indeterminable degree of success. Before asteroid mining has any real chance of success, there needs to be significant improvement in the technology and a reduction in the costs; this is a fact that current NASA officials already acknowledge. But, does the future of resource collection lie in asteroid mining? It looks like we have a bit longer to wait.
By: James Fenner