Here’s How Scientists Plan To Trap Asteroids In Earth’s Orbit And Mine Them For Resources

Scientists have figured out a way to use Earth’s atmosphere as a 'catching mitt' for small asteroids that skim past our planet.

Near-Earth asteroid
Elenarts / Shutterstock

Scientists have figured out a way to use Earth’s atmosphere as a 'catching mitt' for small asteroids that skim past our planet.

Hailed as the next trillion-dollar industry, asteroid mining has the potential of unlocking access to a bounty of precious resources, including iron, nickel, carbon, cobalt, platinum, rhodium, and iridium, the Inquisitr previously reported.

Currently trapped inside space rocks hurtling through the cosmos, these vast stores of valuable minerals could be harvested and ferried to Earth as a way of solving the planet’s resource shortage crisis.

But how do we get our hands on an asteroid that’s ripe for mining? Well, a team of scientists from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, led by Ph.D. student Minghu Tan, believe they have the answer.

In a new study recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, the researchers argue that they have found a way to use our own planet’s atmosphere to stop near-Earth asteroids in their tracks and conveniently entrap them when they skim past our cosmic borders.

Their proposed method is based on a principle called aerobraking — the same technique that spacecraft use when they prepare for landing, either back on Earth or on an alien planet, explains the New York Post.

In a nutshell, aerobraking is a drag maneuver that allows spacecraft to take advantage of a planet’s atmosphere and use its resistance to slow down enough for gravity to pull them toward the surface for landing. This is the same method that will be employed by NASA’s InSight lander to touch down on Mars come November 26, the Inquisitr reported earlier this year.

The same principle could be applied to slow down small asteroids as they pass by our planet and keep them in Earth’s orbit, where they could be mined for platinum or water. This would turn our atmosphere into a “giant catching mitt for resource-rich space rocks,” notes Science Magazine.

“This paper investigates the concept of capturing near-Earth asteroids into bound orbits around the Earth by using aerobraking,” shows the new study, which also presents two asteroid capture strategies based on the aerobraking principle.

“These are termed single-impulse capture and bi-impulse capture, corresponding to two approaches to raising the perigee height of the captured asteroid’s orbit after the aerobraking maneuver,” the authors wrote in their paper.

To make sure that aerobraking doesn’t turn against us by setting the asteroids on a collision course with Earth, the team suggests that only space rocks less than 30 meters (98 feet) be considered as candidates for the new method.

In their opinion, “aerobraking can in principle enable candidate asteroids to be captured around the Earth with, in some cases, extremely low energy requirements.” All it takes is a small enough asteroid to qualify for the procedure and an unmanned spacecraft to nudge it on course and correct its trajectory in case the space rock strays somehow or gets too close for comfort.

Asteroid mining.
3D illustration of a spacecraft approaching an asteroid. Dotted Yeti / Shutterstock

Once the asteroids are safely trapped in Earth’s orbit and mining operations can begin, their resources could be transported to the International Space Station, where they could be processed and used to supply future space missions. For instance, the team points out that the water mined from asteroids could be split into hydrogen and oxygen and used as fuel.

Yet not everyone is convinced that the idea is feasible. Ingo Mueller-Wodarg, a physicist at the Imperial College London involved in the study of planetary atmospheres, points out that using aerobraking to trap asteroids comes with a set of risks.

“The risk would lie in the asteroid having an irregular shape and hence experiencing torque, beginning to spin and hence go out of control,” says Mueller-Wodarg. “When we do aerobraking with satellites, we carefully fire small rockets to keep [them] on course and compensate for any such wobble.”

Another problem has to do with the composition of the asteroid candidates, given that space rocks with a high iron content would either be difficult to slow down or would pose a greater threat of crashing into Earth’s atmosphere, where they might not burn up completely.

Tan is also aware of the dangers of such an operation and suggests that the method should be tested on a specifically chosen target, an asteroid dubbed 2005 VL1 and which perfectly fits the bill when it comes to size and speed. According to the team, this space rock is small enough for aerobraking to work as planned and also has the right speed to be easily redirected in case something goes wrong.