Mining the Stars: Companies go to new heights for possibly infinite production
Ed. M. DeHart
Fuel processing concept.
Source: Deep Space Industries
With finite resources on Earth and the seemingly endless potential space provides, prospectors are considering some out-of-this-world solutions. A single 90 foot wide platinum asteroid is believed to be worth $50 billion. American astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “If you haul an asteroid the size of a house to Earth, it could have more platinum on it that has ever been mined the history of the world; More gold than has ever been mined in the history of the world.”
Companies have started projects aimed at the asteroid mining business.
Deep Space Industries, a privately held space tech company, has not wasted any time planning its first mission, named Prospector-X, set for launch this year. Prospector-X is a low-Earth orbit nanosatellite, designed to test the tech that will be used for mining on an actual asteroid. If Prospector-X proves to be a success, Deep Space will launch its 50 kg Prospector-1.
Prospector-1 is forecasted to journey to an asteroid and appraise its value by the end of 2020. Through a mid-infrared camera and neutron spectrometer, the spacecraft is designed to see three feet below the surface and send its findings back to Earth. From there, Deep Space will decide whether to send an excavator unit.
A company’s biggest obstacle is knowing the contents of asteroids before sending out excavation teams.
Investors are unlikely to support such a lofty goal without a reasonable promise of return. Because of that, securing data to differentiate the resource-rich rocks dominates the decision-making process. NASA missions Lucy and Psych were designed to learn more about the composition of asteroids to resolve that exact dilemma. These missions and more will help provide some real characteristics that are much more refined and detailed that will enable some data driven action.
Zero-G mining creates a whole new set of obstacles.
Most equipment, training, and processes for extraction have been developed for the pressure and gravity of Earth. Mining projects are used to keeping one’s feet on the ground without much effort. Such is not the case in space. Excavation methodology requires a complete overhaul. Modified drilling and magnetic separation methods could be used, but the reduced gravity wouldn’t hold everything tight and close to the site—pieces would likely drop off and production percentages would drop along with it. The question looms of how much overhaul will be necessary to make the transition from terrestrial mining to asteroid mining.
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