Speaking of Hubble...

Mining Asteroids? Why Not!

May 3, 2012 by Alberto Conti
The asteroid Eros

The asteroid Eros

Last week, a new company entered the increasingly crowded market for private space exploration and exploitation. Planetary Resources‘ goal is to “establish a new paradigm for resource discovery and utilization that will bring the solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence.” This ambitious mission statement is backed up by “visionaries, pioneers, rocket scientists and industry leaders with proven track records on — and off — this planet.”

Among the founders of Planetary Resources is Peter Diamandis, who is very well known is space circles for many ambitious and successful undertakings. Perhaps the most well-known is the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private-sector manned spaceflight, a prize won in October 2004 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan for SpaceShipOne, the world’s first non-governmental, piloted spacecraft. However, it is perhaps not as well known that Peter is also the co-founder of the International Space University (ISU): “an international institution of higher learning, dedicated to the development of outer space for peaceful purposes through international and multidisciplinary education and research programs.”

I was privileged to be part of the ISU summer programs in Barcelona (1994) as a student, and in Stockholm (1995) as a teaching assistant. As one of the 180 or so students in Barcelona, I worked on an intense, nine-week course for postgraduate students and professionals. The course tackled space-related disciplines that covered astrophysics, space policy and law, life sciences and more. Our final product was a Solar System Exploration Design Project, in which we ran thought experiments on how we should colonize and explore our own solar system. We developed mission concepts for lunar probes, comet sample returns, missions to the outer planets, and even the search for life!

Of particular relevance to the announcement by Planetary Resources was our Near Earth Asteroid Mission. Our mission statement — remember this was 1994 — was to “affirm the relevance of solar system exploration to human society using a smaller, cheaper, and faster science mission to evaluate the resource and hazard potential of small near-Earth asteroids.” Even back then, young professionals thought that investigating Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) was a rather promising idea.

Scientifically, NEOs represent the remnants from the early formation of our own solar system. As such, their physical, chemical and geological properties hold clues to the origin and evolution of our solar system. However, from a resource potential, NEOs are truly remarkable. Unlike on Earth, where heavier metals sink to the core, metals in NEOs are distributed throughout their body, making them easier to extract. They contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.

Some NEOs could even be the remnants of extinct comet nuclei and therefore contain large quantities of water ice and other volatiles under a thin shell of silicate dust.

So how would you built a mission to rendezvous and orbit an NEO in preparation for full-scale mining? In our project, we identified three possible mission scenarios, in order of increasing complexity:

  • Flyby — short observation time, but ideal for quick reconnaissance
  • Rendezvous — long observations time, ample opportunity to study composition and landing sites
  • Contact/Penetrator Probe — direct sampling of internal composition

Each mission would be equipped with cameras for determining size, shape, rotation and surface features; X-ray and Gamma-ray spectrometers to inspect surface and near-surface elemental composition; infrared reflectance spectral mappers for detailed mineralogical composition; and a number of other desirable instruments such as magnetometers, altimeters, dust collectors, mass spectrometers, etc.

Our design was inspired by the Clementine mission, which flew in 1994, and tested advanced sensors and spacecraft components under extended exposure to the harsh space environment during observations of the Moon. (The project was named Clementine after the song “Oh My Darling, Clementine” as the spacecraft would be “lost and gone forever” following its mission.)

Clementine was only a partial success; its planned flyby of an NEO did not take place due to an instrument malfunction. However, many of the technologies and techniques used by Clementine to obtain high-resolution images of our Moon, using innovative ideas and with limited costs, helped the development of later solar system observatories.

It is now almost two decades later, and the landscape of space exploration has changed. NASA is starting to partner with the private sector to enable new initiatives in support of its 50-year-old mission. At the same time, innovative entrepreneurs are seeking to capitalize on the convergence of cheap and reliable technologies for mining operations, which, for the first time in our history, will be located on a different solar system body than our own.

The time seems to be favorable for the exploitation of resources well beyond our immediate atmosphere. This race will undoubtedly produce a cascade of products and ideas focused on enabling our species to explore our immediate planetary neighborhood.

Let the race begin!