Why Asteroid Mining Is the Future of Space Exploration

Monday, 20 November 2017 - 11:50AM
Solar System
Monday, 20 November 2017 - 11:50AM
Why Asteroid Mining Is the Future of Space Exploration
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Image credit: Pixabay
The secret to the future of space exploration may be hiding in a Michael Bay movie.

There's something wonderfully romantic about mining asteroids.

Perhaps it's the thought of attempting to land on a dangerous icy rock that's hurtling through space, or the idea that anyone foolhardy enough to try swinging a pickaxe aboard Haley's Comet could be rewarded with their weight in precious stone, but for whatever reason, science fiction returns again and again to the idea of looting asteroids for precious natural resources. Or perhaps it's Bruce Willis.

Now, scientists are planning to mine asteroids for real—although, of course, they're going to get robots to do all the really dangerous stuff.

As part of ongoing projects around the world that will aim to make asteroid mining commercially viable, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) is undertaking a study to try and locate potential asteroids that may contain resources worth getting excited about.

Because it's hard to get a good look at asteroids unless you get really, really close, the university team is trying to find ways to fly up next to potential mining spots in order to take samples for later analysis. This, it goes without saying, is far too dangerous and costly for any human to do, so the team is currently working towards building autonomous drones that can handle all the heavy lifting.

According to assistant professor Hever Moncayo, who is in charge of the current project, the challenge here is in creating drones that can make smart, informed decisions while hurtling through space next to a giant frozen rock—apparently, this is proving difficult for some reason.

Said Moncayo:

Opening quote
"Autonomous here refers to the capability of a system to recover from extreme environments, to adapt and to make decisions in an intelligent way."
Closing quote

So the drones don't just need to be able to handle a routine procedure, but, crucially, must be capable of bouncing back if something goes wrong. This means that the team has to test their robot prospectors in a variety of situations, and program them so that they're adaptable enough to come up with contingency plans on the fly when a mission goes south.

The next challenge is actually getting these drones to where they need to be under their own steam. For this, the solution is to be "marsupial-based"—although, that doesn't mean shooting kangaroos into space to see what happens.

Instead, like a mother kangaroo, a hub drone will contain a pouch, storing hundreds of tiny drones inside itself for convenient transport, before all these little babies are shot out to explore an asteroid for signs of quality mining resources.

Based on that description, it's hard not to think of the Imperial probe droids at the start of The Empire Strikes Back—except that very few of these probe droids will be blown up by Wookiees and scruffy nerfherders.

What's particularly interesting about these futuristic space mining missions is the resources that are considered worth mining for.

The most important—and potentially one of the rarest—resources is water, which, while abundant on our own planet, is less common out in the dead of space.

Why is water so useful in the empty vastness of space? It's the key ingredient for rocket fuel. By separating the hydrogen from the oxygen within H20, space missions can continue for longer without needing to bring lots of fuel for the journey.

Such discoveries hold tremendous potential for the future of space exploration. If we can successfully adapt techniques for mining water on asteroids and turning it into rocket fuel, our solar system will suddenly start looking a whole lot smaller. 

With the ongoing research that's taking place around the world, it's expected that the first asteroid mining mission may take place in just 10 years.

By this point, humanity will be engaged in far more structured commercial space flight, the Air Force will be in spaceNASA will have launched a mission to Mars, and the ability to grab resources off passing rocks will come in handy for many of those complex missions.
Solar System
Why Asteroid Mining Is the Future of Space Exploration