Are Chemical Rockets or Solar Sails Better to Return Resources from Asteroids?

It's long been thought that a giant asteroid, which broke up long ago in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually made its way to Earth and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. New studies say that the dinosaurs may have been facing extinction before the asteroid strike, and that mammals were already on the rise. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If and when we ever get an asteroid mining industry off the ground, one of the most important decisions to be made in the structure of any asteroid mining mission would be how to get the resources back to where all of our other infrastructure is – somewhere around the Earth. That decision typically will focus on one of two propulsion methodologies – chemical rockets, such as those we already use to get us into space in the first place, or solar sails, which, while slower and unable to get us into orbit, don’t require any fuel. So, which propulsion methodology is better for these future missions? A study by researchers at the University of Glasgow looked at those two scenarios and came out with a clear-cut answer – solar sails.

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What Would Asteroid Mining do to the World's Economy?

Artist's impression of an astronaut conducting an EVA with an asteroid. Credit: NASA

About a decade ago, the prospect of “asteroid mining” saw a massive surge in interest. This was due largely to the rise of the commercial space sector and the belief that harvesting resources from space would soon become a reality. What had been the stuff of science fiction and futurist predictions was now being talked about seriously in the business sector, with many claiming that the future of resource exploitation and manufacturing lay in space. Since then, there’s been a bit of a cooling off as these hopes failed to materialize in the expected timeframe.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that a human presence in space will entail harvesting resources from Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and beyond. In a recent paper, a team of researchers from the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, examined the potential impact of asteroid mining on the global economy. Based on their detailed assessment that includes market forces, environmental impact, asteroid and mineral type, and the scale of mining, they show how asteroid mining can be done in a way that is consistent with the Outer Space Treaty (i.e., for the benefit of all humanity).

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Two Spacecraft Could Work Together to Capture an Asteroid and Bring it Close to Earth for Mining

Mining asteroids might be necessary for humanity to expand into the Solar System. But what effect would asteroid mining have on the world's economy? Credit: ESA.

Humanity seems destined to expand into the Solar System. What exactly that looks like, and how difficult and tumultuous the endeavour might be, is wide open to speculation. But there are some undeniable facts attached to the prospect.

We need materials to build infrastructure, and getting it all into space from Earth is not realistic. (Be quiet, space elevator people.)

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Want to Mine the Moon? Here’s a Detailed Map of all its Minerals

A geological map of the Moon showing different formations and mineral deposits. Credit: NASA/GSFC/USGS

The prospect of mining asteroids and the Moon is on a lot of peoples’ minds lately. Maybe it’s all the growth that’s happened in the commercial aerospace industry in the past few decades. Or perhaps it’s because of Trump’s recent executive order to allow for asteroid and lunar mining. Either way, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs and futurists who can’t wait to start prospecting and harvest the natural bounty of space!

Coincidentally enough, future lunar miners now have a complete map of the lunar surface, which was created by the US Geological Society’s (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center, in collaboration with NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI). This map shows the distribution and classification of the mineral deposits on the Moon’s surface, effectively letting us know what its familiar patchwork of light and dark patches the really are.

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Trump Signs an Executive Order Allowing Mining the Moon and Asteroids

An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018
An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

In 2015, the Obama administration signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA, or H.R. 2262) into law. This bill was intended to “facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry” by making it legal for American companies and citizens to own and sell resources that they extract from asteroids and off-world locations (like the Moon, Mars, or beyond).

On April 6th, the Trump administration took things a step further by signing an executive order that formally recognizes the rights of private interests to claim resources in space. This order, titled “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources,” effectively ends the decades-long debate that began with the signing of The Outer Space Treaty in 1967.

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Who Wants to be a Trillionaire? Mission to Psyche Could Uncover Tons of Precious Metals!

Artist's impression of the asteroid Psyche 16. Credit: ASU

It has been said that within the next quarter century, the world’s first trillionaires will emerge. It is also predicted that much of their wealth will stem from asteroid mining, a burgeoning space industry where minerals and volatile compounds will be harvested from Near-Earth Asteroids. This industry promises to flood the market with ample supplies of precious metals like gold, silver and platinum.

Beyond Earth, there’s the long-term prospect of the Main Asteroid Belt, which would provide even greater abundance. This is one of the reasons why NASA’s Psyche mission to explore the metal asteroid of the same name in the Main Belt has many people excited. While the exploration of this body could tell us much about the history of the Solar System, it could also be a source of riches someday.

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Robotic asteroid mining spacecraft wins a grant from NASA

Credits: Joel Sercel, TransAstra Corporation

Back in April, NASA once again put out the call for proposals for the next generation of robotic explorers and missions. As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, this consisted of researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs coming together to submit early studies of new concepts that could one-day help advance NASA’s space exploration goals.

One concept that was selected for Phase III of development was a breakthrough mission and flight system called Mini Bee. This small, robotic mining craft was designed by the Trans Astronautica (TransAstra) Corporation to assist with deep-space missions. It is hoped that by leveraging this flight system architecture, the Mini-bee will enable the full-scale industrialization of space as well as human settlement.

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Most of the Solar System Should be a Protected Wilderness. One-Eighth Left for Mining and Resource Exploitation

Artist's impression of the asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There is no doubt that our world is in the midst of a climate crisis. Between increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, rising temperatures and sea levels, ocean acidification, species extinctions, waste production, diminishing supplies of fresh water, drought, severe weather, and all of the resulting fallout, the “Anthropocene” is not shaping up too well.

It is little wonder then why luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin, and Elon Musk believe that we must look off-world to ensure our survival. However, there are those who caution that in so doing, humans will simply shift our burdens onto new locations. Addressing this possibility, two distinguished researchers recently published a paper where they suggest that we should set aside “wilderness” spaces” in our Solar System today.

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Steam-Powered Spacecraft Could Explore the Asteroid Belt Forever, Refueling Itself in Space

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

The era of renewed space exploration has led to some rather ambitious proposals. While many have been on the books for decades, it has only been in recent years that some of these plans have become technologically feasible. A good example is asteroid mining, where robotic spacecraft would travel to Near-Earth Asteroids and the Main Asteroid Belt to harvest minerals and other resources.

At the moment, one of the main challenges is how these craft would be able to get around and refuel once they are in space. To address this, the New York-based company Honeybee Robotics has teemed up with the University of Central Florida (UFC) to develop a steam-powered robotic spacecraft. The company recently released a demonstration video that shows their prototype World is Not Enough (WINE) “steam hopper” in action.

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Earth’s Mini-Moons are the Perfect Targets to Test Out Asteroid Mining

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

Roughly 4.5 billion years ago, scientists theorize that Earth experienced a massive impact with a Mars-sized object (named Theia). In accordance with the Giant Impact Hypothesis, this collision placed a considerable amount of debris in orbit, which eventually coalesced to form the Moon. And while the Moon has remained Earth’s only natural satellite since then, astronomers believe that Earth occasionally shares its orbit with “mini-moons”.

These are essentially small and fast-moving asteroids that largely avoid detection, with only one having been observed to date. But according to a new study by an international team of scientists, the development of  instruments like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) could allow for their detection and study. This, in turn, will present astronomers and asteroid miners with considerable opportunities.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in the Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences under the title “Earth’s Minimoons: Opportunities for Science and Technology“. The study was led by Robert Jedicke, a researcher from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and included members from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the University of Washington, the Luleå University of Technology, the University of Helsinki, and the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos.

As a specialist in Solar System bodies, Jedicke has spent his career studying the orbit and size distributions of asteroid populations – including Main Belt and Near Earth Objects (NEOs), Centaurs, Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), comets, and interstellar objects. For the sake of their study, Jedicke and his colleagues focused on objects known as temporarily-captured orbiters (TCO) – aka. mini-moons.

These are essentially small rocky bodies – thought to measure up to 1-2 meters (3.3 to 6.6 feet) in diameter – that are temporarily gravitationally bound to the Earth-Moon system. This population of objects also includes temporarily-captured flybys (TCFs), asteroids that fly by Earth and make at least one revolution of the planet before escaping orbit or entering our atmosphere.

As Dr. Jedicke explained in a recent Science Daily news release, these characteristics is what makes mini-moons particularly hard to observe:

“Mini-moons are small, moving across the sky much faster than most asteroid surveys can detect. Only one minimoon has ever been discovered orbiting Earth, the relatively large object designated 2006 RH120, of a few meters in diameter.”

This object, which measured a few meters in diameter, was discovered in 2006 by the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), a NASA-funded project supported by the Near Earth Object Observation Program (NEOO) that is dedicated to discovering and tracking Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs). Despite improvements over the past decade in ground-based telescopes and detectors, no other TCOs have been detected since.

Artist rendering of the LSST observatory (foreground) atop Cerro Pachón in Chile. Credit: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project Office.

After reviewing the last ten years of mini-moon research, Jedicke and colleagues concluded that existing technology is only capable of detecting these small, fast moving objects by chance. This is likely to change, according to Jedicke and his colleagues, thanks to the advent of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a wide-field telescope that is currently under construction in Chile.

Once complete, the LSST will spend the ten years investigating the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, detecting transient events (e.g. novae, supernovae, gamma ray bursts, gravitational lensings, etc.), mapping the structure of the Milky Way, and mapping small objects in the Solar System. Using its advanced optics and data processing techniques, the LSST is expected to increase the number of cataloged NEAs and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) by a factor of 10-100.

But as they indicate in their study, the LSST will also be able to verify the existence of TCOs and track their paths around our planet, which could result in exciting scientific and commercial opportunities. As Dr. Jedicke indicated:

“Mini-moons can provide interesting science and technology testbeds in near-Earth space. These asteroids are delivered towards Earth from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter via gravitational interactions with the Sun and planets in our solar system. The challenge lies in finding these small objects, despite their close proximity.”

Time-lapse photo of the sky above the LSST construction site in Chile. Credit: LSST

When it is completed in a few years, it is hoped that the LSST will confirm the existence of mini-moons and help track their orbits around Earth. This will be possible thanks to the telescope’s primary mirror (which measures 8.4 meters (27 feet) across) and its 3200 megapixel camera – which has a tremendous field of view. As Jedicke explained, the telescope will be able to cover the entire night sky more than once a week and collect light from faint objects.

With the ability to detect and track these small, fast objects, low-cost missions may be possible to mini-Moons, which would be a boon for researchers seeking to learn more about asteroids in our Solar System. As Dr Mikael Granvik – a researcher from the Luleå University of Technology, the University of Helsinki, and a co-author on the paper – indicated:

“At present we don’t fully understand what asteroids are made of. Missions typically return only tiny amounts of material to Earth. Meteorites provide an indirect way of analyzing asteroids, but Earth’s atmosphere destroys weak materials when they pass through. Mini-moons are perfect targets for bringing back significant chunks of asteroid material, shielded by a spacecraft, which could then be studied in detail back on Earth.”

As Jedicke points out, the ability to conduct low-cost missions to objects that share Earth’s orbit will also be of interest to the burgeoning asteroid mining industry. Beyond that, they also offer the possibility of increasing humanity’s presence in space.

“Once we start finding mini-moons at a greater rate they will be perfect targets for satellite missions,” he said. “We can launch short and therefore cheaper missions, using them as testbeds for larger space missions and providing an opportunity for the fledgling asteroid mining industry to test their technology… I hope that humans will someday venture into the solar system to explore the planets, asteroids and comets — and I see mini-moons as the first stepping stones on that voyage.”

Further Reading: Science Daily, Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences