Resources in space

A UNIVERSE OF POTENTIAL

Celestial bodies – including the Moon or near-earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids – are naturally forming objects found beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Many planets, moons and asteroids contain a rich diversity of inert physical substances such as metals, along with gases and water that could be used as energy sources and means to sustain human life as we venture deeper into space.

Many of the metals found within celestial bodies are already scarce on Earth. One day, we may use them not only to construct equipment in space but transport them back to support terrestrial activities, employing on Earth the technologies developed to explore and mine resources in space.

NEOs are close to Earth in astronomical terms. Nudged by the gravitational pull of nearby planets, they are within 1.3 Astronomical Units (1 AU = 150 million kilometers).

NEOs take different forms. Comets, which are formed in the cold outer planetary system, are mostly frozen water embedded with dust particles. Rocky asteroids are formed closer to home, in the warmer inner solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, from the residue of the material that constituted Mars, Mercury, Venus and Earth itself. Asteroids show a large variety of material composition, such as  carbon-rich (C-type), metallic (M-type) or mineral-rich silicate (S-type).

Around 15,000 near-earth asteroids of various sizes had been identified and listed by the end of 2016, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and their number keeps growing.

SIGNIFICANCE OF SPACE RESOURCES

Earth’s natural resources are already under pressure from the planet’s growing population, estimated to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Rising demand for resources will eventually push the economic balance in favor of harvesting resources from space to sustain our lives on Earth.

But for now, the clearer and more immediate benefits from mining resources are for use in space. Many asteroids contain significant, highly concentrated quantities of metals such as iron, nickel, tungsten and cobalt, while ammonia, nitrogen, hydrogen and other useful gases have been detected. Frozen water could be among the most important assets as man ventures further into the unknown. These valuable materials can be applied to technologies used in space and to sustain life in space.

Not long ago, space exploration was the preserve of national governments and international agencies with access to the necessary financial resources. Today, private investors and companies utilize lower-cost technologies and have at their disposal the financial resources to launch satellites to explore the opportunities for mining resources on NEOs or the Moon. In doing so, they increase the knowledge on these bodies and may also contribute to help defend Earth against asteroid impacts, preventing material damage and human casualties.

FIRST STEPS

Mining space resources may well come surprisingly quickly. Expeditions to near-Earth asteroids have already yielded remarkable discoveries. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe, which was launched in 2004, astounded the world with images and data sent back from its Philae module after landing on a comet in 2015.

The first Japanese Hyabusa (“Peregrine Falcon”) probe brought some 1,500 grains of material back from the Itokawa asteroid in 2010. A second Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency probe should reach the Ryugu asteroid in 2018. If all goes well, its samples will be back on Earth two years later.

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  1. Pete Worden is the former Director of the NASA Ames Research Center. Next May 9th and 10th, Pete Worden will also share his unique knowledge at the Space Forum.