NASA is abandoning the International Space Station and making room for private companies to develop a new economy in orbit above Earth, and asteroid mining could be the key to the whole project.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about reusable rockets making space travel cheaper, but it still costs a couple thousand dollars for every pound of cargo launched into orbit.
That’s where asteroid mining comes in.
NASA says the mineral wealth in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter equals about $100 billion for every person on Earth, but the real benefit of these space rocks is the ice they possess.
Ice found on passing asteroids can be converted into fuel to power spacecraft already in orbit, decreasing the amount of propellant they need to carry during liftoff and reducing the overall cost of space travel, according to NASA.
“It seems likely that in the next century when we begin to colonize the inner solar system, the metals and minerals found on asteroids will provide the raw materials for space structures and comets will become the watering holes and gas stations for interplanetary spacecraft.”
Deep Space Industries is busy building the world’s first interplanetary prospecting spacecraft to demonstrate the technology necessary to extract water, in the form of ice, and other resources from passing asteroids.
The first prospector spacecraft will launch next year to test the company’s technology followed by the world’s first asteroid mining mission before the end of the decade. That’s the latest step in the company’s plan to establish a new economy in orbit above Earth by creating a resource supply chain, Deep Space Industries CEO Daniel Faber told Gizmodo.
“Our thirty year goal is to build cities in space. You need a lot of raw materials from asteroids to enable that.”
Asteroids aren’t the only space rocks that contain valuable resources. The moon, the biggest space rock near Earth, contains huge deposits of consumables like hydrogen and oxygen along with untold mineral wealth.
NASA is planning to launch their Resource Prospector spacecraft in the early 2020s to search for consumable resources on the moon and test important technology necessary for a manned Mars mission.
The idea is called “in-situ” resource utilization, or living off the land in space. Martian settlers might not be able to take everything they need with them on their difficult and dangerous interplanetary crossing, so it will be important to be able to gather supplies once they land on the red planet.
A manned Mars mission would be a lengthy undertaking. Travel time to the red planet is about six to nine months each way and that’s before the astronauts even step foot on the planet — and that’s without the benefit of a resupply mission.
That’s why it will be important for Mars travelers to be able to live off the land, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana told Mars Daily.
“As pioneers, we will create a sustained human presence in an ever more extreme environment.”
NASA plans to first test their mining technology on the moon before sending it off to Mars to help astronauts survive their first trip to the red planet, Kennedy senior technologist Rob Mueller told Mars Daily.
“We don’t want to land somewhere and assume there is water in the regolith and find there is no water. We need to prospect before we mine to see if there is anything valuable there.
A group of deep space mining startup companies discussed the science of extracting resources from space rocks at this year’s Asteroid Science Intersections with In-Space Mine Engineering (ASIME) conference in Luxembourg.
Luxembourg was chosen to host the conference, in part, because it’s funding several space mining startups including Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, and TransAstra, Florida State University researcher Phil Metzger told Space.com.
“It wasn’t a bunch of people saying we ought to do it; that wasn’t discussed because we are doing it now. We were focused on how do we do the job?”
What do you think about mining in deep space?
[Featured Image by Mopic/Shutterstock]