A team of researchers are planning to send robotic spacecraft into outer space, land near asteroids hurtling through the abyss and mine them for water, metals and other elements that will make colonizing space that much easier. Science columnist Torah Kachur explains.
Why do we need to mine asteroids?
Quite simply because the current economics of space flight are untenable. It costs approximately $10,000 US per kilogram every time we want to send something up to the International Space Station. Imagine $10,000 for a litre of water. Elon Musk and Space X are trying to cut those costs down by having reusable rockets, but still, the price is exorbitant.
The reason why it is so expensive is because of the gravity of Earth; we have to propel a rocket with its payload away from Earth and out of the atmosphere and that takes a lot of energy. But once you are in outer space, there are smaller space bodies with less, if any, gravity that may contain stuff that we need for human habitation or just visits to space.
What kinds of things are going to be mined?
Pretty much anything we can find. I spoke with J.L. Galache. He’s an entrepreneur and has a startup called ATEN engineering. He wants to be one of the first to mine asteroids.
“Being able to get water while we’re in space, building materials, to be able to build spaceships and habitats up in space with materials that we’ve harvested in space — that’s what’s going to enable us to spread throughout the solar system,” says Galache.
The primary thing to find is actually water, because it’s is heavy to get from Earth, but also plentiful in space on asteroids. So it’s not unreasonable to think that a lander spacecraft of some kind (there are a few designs in progress) would come near an asteroid, suck up some ice or water and bring it back to the ISS or any other human dwelling in space. This would make space travel much more affordable.
‘Think of a water-logged asteroid as a little gas station in the sky,’
– Torah Kachur
Not only that, water can be used for more than just drinking; it can be split into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel. Think of a water-logged asteroid as a little gas station in the sky.
How do researchers know if one of these asteroids contains water?
That’s the hard part and the focus of the scientific establishment right now. There are three broad categories of asteroids, all of which have potential for mining. But…