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Survey of minerals in asteroids

President Obama intends to land humans on a near-Earth asteroid in 2025. The same technologies should be used to mine minerals in any asteroids, and before that a survey of these minerals should be carried out

Imaging of the Rosetta spacecraft near asteroid Steins, 2008. Image: European Space Agency
Imaging of the Rosetta spacecraft near asteroid Steins, 2008. Image: European Space Agency

US President Barack Obama announced this week that he wants to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025. Although he meant a near-Earth asteroid, it is possible that the next step will also be a landing, certainly unmanned, on other asteroids, which will also be of economic interest.

The space between Jupiter and Mars is known as the asteroid belt. There are tens of thousands of bodies orbiting the sun. Only 4 of them exceed 400 km in diameter and the Dawn spacecraft is now moving to two of the largest of them Ceres Vesta. The intention is to carry out a careful mapping and research of them. The spacecraft will enter an orbit around each of them and will stay between them for 11 months. The only asteroid thoroughly mapped is Eros by the NEAR spacecraft. Other asteroids such as Gaspar and Ida were randomly photographed by the Galileo spacecraft on its way to Jupiter. Its trajectory was such that it gave the researchers the opportunity to photograph these bodies.

One of the researchers' goals is to land spacecraft on asteroids and return soil samples. There is no doubt that soil samples can tell a lot about their geological history and the evolution of the solar system. Beyond the scientific interest, from a somewhat futuristic perspective, asteroids have a very large economic value and this is due to the likelihood of finding raw materials in them. Those heavenly bodies have an economic promise in them.

The accepted trend today in space exploration is international cooperation. Space exploration is no longer just the enterprise of individual countries, as during the Cold War, the USA and the USSR. The European Mars Express spacecraft was launched on a Russian launch vehicle, the exploration of Saturn, its rings and moons was a joint venture between the US and the European Space Agency. The Cassini spacecraft was American and entered orbit around Saturn. Adjacent to it was the Huygens lander intended to land on Titan. This lander was designed and manufactured by the European Space Agency. The Indian lunar rover Chandrayaan 2 will be landed on the moon by a Russian lander. This is how asteroid research should be done.

Testing all asteroids for their industrial potential is neither practical nor economical. The way to act is to check sectors of the asteroid belt. Two spaceships must be launched that will move in the strip in opposite directions. The orbit of each spacecraft will be such that it surveys asteroids similar to the Xsini spacecraft photographing Saturn's tiny moons. Each spaceship will be equipped with a large amount of fuel so that during its flight it can approach up to a distance of tens of thousands of kilometers from each of them and take an initial photo of it. The lifespan of such a spaceship should be several years, similar to the Xsini spaceship and the satellites moving around Mars. Since these spacecraft are farther from the Sun than Mars, a powerful power supply will be needed. A possible way is to equip them with solar collectors similar to the solar collectors of the JUNO spacecraft - which will be launched to Jupiter.

Such a spacecraft would actually be a platform for dozens of tiny spacecraft weighing 2-3 kg each. It will have a carrier inside which these tiny spaceships will be loaded. As soon as its instruments detect a potential asteroid, a tiny spacecraft is launched towards it. The release of the Halaz is similar to the launch of the Magellan spacecraft to Venus. The Magellan was locked inside a mount in the space shuttle. From the moment it was decided to carry out the launch, the opening of the bracket released springs that gave the maglan a rotational movement around itself. From the moment the shuttle moved away from Magellan, the engines of the latter were activated in preparation for the flight to Venus. This is how it will be necessary to behave here as well. Each spacecraft will be equipped with a tiny engine and a number of research instruments and it will move towards a collision course with the desired asteroid. During its flight you will photograph and measure it until it collides. It will of course be necessary to take into account that the asteroids move around themselves and this in order to ensure that the area where the large concentration of minerals is found will be photographed. The data that Halaz finds are transmitted to the mother spacecraft and from there to Earth. If it is seen that the missile missed its target, there is a possibility of launching another one in its place. When one satellite finishes its task, another satellite is launched to another asteroid, in order not to create a burden on the communication channels.

The advantage of this method is that a large number of asteroids can be scanned for the price of one launch. Since this is an international collaboration, it would be useful to divide work, who develops which spacecraft or which component of it and who develops the satellites. In this way, the first mineral mapping of dozens of asteroids was done. It is quite possible that, following these findings, a dedicated spacecraft will be designed to investigate specific asteroids. Such a project is the first of its kind and particularly challenging.

It is likely that no manned spacecraft will be launched to asteroids in the coming years. However, there is no reason not to lay the initial foundations for mining minerals from the asteroids in an industrial format. Did he come up with a profession like asteroid mining engineering? Sounds imaginary, but a look ahead can show that the chances of this are good.

7 תגובות

  1. You remember my article "Rak"z - a tiny cosmological robot" that appeared here in Scientist and dealt with the same topic - about tiny spacecraft that will be attached to mother spacecraft. Admittedly, I didn't speak emphatically there about an economic examination of ores in asteroids, but I did speak about maintenance repair and research of the mound environment.
    Do you remember the opposition that this article created by a commenter or two on the site until it was even (temporarily) removed from the site?.
    Good luck, dear stranger. Your/my idea is great!
    Shabbat Shalom
    Sabdarmish Yehuda

  2. In theory, you can simply blow up asteroids that have precious ores and push them toward Earth.
    What do you say, practical?

  3. There is already a substitute (as a source of electricity) for coal, oil and gas, and that is nuclear energy.

  4. What Obama is planning is to invest billions in an ore pad on asteroids and their value is measured in millions, in short an investment of billions will yield a profit of millions and others are surprised that the American economy is garbage.

  5. "Necessity is the father of invention" until there is no need and the minerals on the planet run out and in addition no substitutes are found for those resources (for example solar cells and wind turbines instead of oil) no one will seriously consider looking for and bringing resources from space.

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