In this month’s Out of this World, I talk about predicting the future. What about the future of space? We’ll keep our predictions in the near-future and the prize that many people have their eye on, and that’s asteroid mining.
Resources on Earth have a massive geographical component. If it’s your land, it’s your resource. We see this with oil and gas, gems and rare earth metals. Not on you patch? Too bad. Asteroid mining opens up mineral acquisition to a wider field of people with deep pockets. Further than that, is the space industry. Once we’ve lowered the cost and barrier of entry to a slightly more accessible degree, we’ll see more spacecraft operating in space full-time. Carrying goods, services and people.
Carbonaceous chrondites, a type of asteroid that carries water, could operate as a kind of gas station. Imagine a floating rock with a blinking 7-11 sign on top. These same asteroids house iron, nickel and cobalt. With the right technology, the raw materials needed for manufacturing are readily available. Humans could manufacture in space, building larger ships and instruments without the logistics and cost of building them on Earth and sending them into space in pieces.
How we turn these asteroids into lucrative piggy-banks is another question. A popular idea is to wrangle an asteroid then cart it to a more convenient location in Earth’s orbit and put it in park. One design has a spacecraft lassoing the asteroid and tugging it to Earth, another is to enclose the asteroid. Yet another suggests mining activities happen on site and the materials mined from the asteroid are shipped back to Earth.
Taking that a step further, with more advanced 3D printers, the materials taken from the asteroid can go straight back into making new spacecraft.
NASA’s idea is more down-to-Earth and practical in the near-future. They are proposing a method called optical mining, where a spacecraft excavates materials and delivers it in an inflatable bag called the Mini Bee. This mission was granted more funding through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. If anyone is playing the long game for space exploration, it’s NASA. They accepted proposals for 18 revolutionary space tech missions in April. NASA is looking to solve a myriad of problems that are barriers to further exploration, especially for humans. Oh the places we will go!