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Asteroid mining could be useful to space travel

By Tom McBrien, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 11, 2014

Earth is more than just our home planet — it is a giant spaceship with a finite amount of materials. Strain on Earth's resources grows in proportion to the human population, and the planet is already running out of important materials such as the rare earth metals that make our electronics work. However, some University researchers are embarking on an effort to lessen the stress on the mother ship: the endeavor of asteroid mining.

Asteroid mining refers to a future practice in which humans could prospect, corral and mine asteroids — flying chunks of rock in space — for useful materials such as water, iron, platinum and rare earth metals. The materials could be used for many different economic and welfare purposes.

NASA’s 2014 budget proposal contains the Asteroid Initiative, which provides a model of what asteroid mining would look like. The first step of the initiative would be prospecting, or examining an asteroid to determine what elements it contains. The second step would be redirection, or capturing the asteroid to bring it under control and moving it to a safe place for mining, such as the Moon’s orbit. The third and final step would be the mining itself, either manned or unmanned.

One purpose of asteroid mining would be to utilize materials in space exploration. Engineering Prof. Alec Gallimore said asteroid mining would be a valuable contribution to expanded space programs.

“The question is, ‘What is the most efficient way of colonizing the solar system?’” he said. “And the notion of doing that might be so-called ‘living off the land.’ Instead of bringing resources that we need to colonize Mars, asteroids, etc. all the way from the Earth, what if we were able to actually extract those essential materials that are needed locally?”

With a current cost of about $10,000 per pound to send something into orbit, the possibility of using materials found in space, as opposed to bringing all supplies from Earth, would be the most cost- and energy-effective option available.

This would fit into what Engineering Prof. Brian Gilchrist said is a “resurgence and entrepreneurial mindset of new things we can do in space that haven’t been considered at all.”

Gilchrist’s research focuses on space tethering, which involves connecting two spacecraft with a conductive cable. As the spacecraft orbit in Earth’s electromagnetic field, the cable becomes charged. Solar power is used to add or leak charge from this circuit, causing the two spacecraft to move up or down. This theoretical system would allow the satellites to gain momentum without a propellant, and could have practical applications for tugging asteroids around in the Moon’s orbit.

Apart from colonization of the solar system, another potential purpose for mining asteroids is bringing materials back to Earth for environmental and commercial purposes.

“I think one of the best products from (asteroid mining), whether you’re mining for precious metals that are rare on earth or water for propulsion, is that there’s the opportunity for us to stop destroying the Earth’s environment,” said Engineering senior Bradley Costa.

Costa is currently engaged in a co-op with Planetary Resources, a leading private-sector company that conducts research on asteroid mining.

Along with sustainability benefits, corralling an asteroid could result in long-term economic benefits.

“One study I read says that one asteroid about a mile in diameter has enough precious metal on it to help humanity with all its needs for 10,000 years or so,” said Gallimore.

While the concept of asteroid mining may seem audacious, it is not science fiction.

“I think it’s worth looking at it like aviation,” Gilchrist said. “This time about 110 years ago was the first flight. There were technological hurdles, hurdles of the unknown, safety hurdles. But it was less than two decades later that planes were being used for complex things like mail service, commercial flying and military applications.”

Costa said the technology to develop such trips is already underway.

“On a public level, such as NASA, the technology to prospect has been demonstrated several times,” Costa said. “So, there is a path forward that is illustrated by government, and the commercial sector is now developing its ways to perform similar missions.”

This interest from the private sector reflects the entrepreneurial trend that Gilchrist cited as a major push behind the endeavor. Major investors in Planetary Resources include Larry Page, CEO and co-founder of Google; Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group; and Charles Simonyi, chief architect of Microsoft Word and Excel.

NASA has a proposed mission of landing humans on a redirected asteroid by 2025, with the eventual hope of landing humans on Mars in the 2030s.


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