Linked by Thom Holwerda on Tue 24th Apr 2012 08:51 UTC
In the News "A newly unveiled company with some high-profile backers - including filmmaker James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page - is set to announce plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources such as precious metals and water." Amazingly cool. Even if it never makes a dime of money, at least these people are contributing to space exploration now that the US has pretty much cut NASA to death. Come to think of it, it's pretty sad we've been relying on a single government for much of our space exploration.
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Member since:

Have you actually read up on what they are proposing? It is not nearly as far fetched as you make it sound...

Mining the moon might be just barely feasible if we ever get fusion to work. Unless that happens, there just isn't anything on the moon that isn't more abundant (and infinitely more accessible) on Earth.

I think that is why they are specifically NOT talking about mining the moon - it isn't very interesting from a risk/reward point of view.

But mining asteroids is even more farfetched. Unlike the moon they do not stay in a nice neat orbit around the earth. Rather, they hurl through space at high speed - if anyone thinks NASA can chase one down with the space shuttle and snag it like a cowboy ropes a cow has been watching too many Star Wars movies.

No one is talking about going out and herding cats... The trick is to find an asteroid that:

1. Is small. No bigger than a house.
2. Has a trajectory that will already bring near the earth.
3. Has a velocity that makes it possible to intercept it.
4. Has a combination of trajectory and velocity that would allow for a slight nudge to bring it into a stable orbit around the earth.
5. Has lots of goodies in it that are very rare on earth (like palladium).

Then you just nudge it into a trajectory that will bring it into orbit. Match speed, attach to it, and use a small low power propulsion system (ion thruster maybe) to push it into the right approach.

Frankly I think that realistically this is about as far as they have gotten... This alone would probably take 10 to 20 years to manage and billions of dollars. I'm not saying it is easy or anything, but it is possible with current technology.

Personally, I think what these guys realize that everyone is missing is that if you find the right rock (i.e. one that has billions of dollars worth of goodies in it) and get it into orbit you change the nature of the endeavor completely...

If you can demonstrate with some certainty that the rock you put into stable orbit is worth a mountain of money, funding a mining operation to get it to earth (the real conundrum) becomes a different proposition.

"Look, see that rock right there - its worth 650 billion dollars. Want to invest?"

Reply Parent Score: 3

hashnet Member since:

a 10 meter cube of pure gold would worth about $914 billions.
Of course, we'd have to wait until one passes in the vicinity. Then bring it in earth orbit, then somehow to the surface.
I salute this enterprise, but on a ROI standpoint, it'd be better to scour the seafloor for metals and rare earth.

Reply Parent Score: 1

zima Member since:

Plus the small detail of asteroids not being anything close to such nuggets (and we have good samples via meteorites, or spectral analyses). Expect fairly common materials and/or, more or less, rubble.

And it's generally sad how such cube would, yes, probably very strongly catch human interest... (or at least half-sad, with around half of our gold needs being for "shiny!" factor)

Reply Parent Score: 2

zima Member since:

No one is talking about going out and herding cats... The trick is to find an asteroid that:

So, from that list, the trick seems to be: dream about a series of highly unlikely occurrences, bordering on fantasising...

1 & 2 - we have a decent idea about the composition of asteroids, plenty of samples. So: either a poorly differentiated pile of rubble, or (somewhat more likely in that size range) a chunk of shattered, largely differentiated body (but without much of any further geological processes, of a kind responsible for many deposits or veins on Earth; hence fairly homogenized, common stuff)

2, 3, 4, & "just nudge it [...] Match speed, attach to it, and use a small low power propulsion system (ion thruster maybe) to push it into the right approach [...] it is possible with current technology" - such orbits are highly unstable naturally, over billions of years such bodies tend be swept clean. Approach speeds of NEA are multi km/s - just matching them a monumental task in delta-V required, with present tech.

Nudging? Yeah, in a decade or two we might do a test (I know of one such ESA project, for example) of changing the orbit of an asteroid, so we'll be better prepared when one comes hurling our way - with minuscule change of orbit accumulating over time.

Intercepting, with feasible tech? Better think in the timescale of centuries, at least.

We'll probably have in-situ manufacturing faster (I'd guess starting actually on the Moon, with some scientists figuring out that by building many structural elements of their upcoming telescope from locally available materials, they can have much better instrument for the same price)

In the meantime we have insanely more hospitable and reachable options, like Sahara (with much more water than this venture can find) - but somehow it's not an industrial powerhouse of the planet, it's in fact quite barren.

Reply Parent Score: 2