SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Could Mine Thousands of Distant Asteroids

Monday, 19 February 2018 - 11:11AM
Technology
Space
Astrophysics
Monday, 19 February 2018 - 11:11AM
SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Could Mine Thousands of Distant Asteroids
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Image credit: SpaceX/Public Domain
Elon Musk recently checked an item off the bucket list when his commercial space company, SpaceX, launched the enormous Falcon Heavy out into the stars for the very first time.

This rocket – the largest and most powerful model constructed since Saturn V in the 1960s – opens the door to new levels of commercial space activity by enabling corporations to transport larger, heavier cargo into space for various missions.

A potential use, according to one scientist, will be to facilitate asteroid mining. There is a wealth of untapped resources that can benefit humanity on these distant, fast-moving boulders zipping around the solar system.

Lecturing at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science in Texas, Martin Elvis of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained how the Falcon Heavy has dramatically increased our asteroid mining capabilities, allowing us to scavenge from thousands of rocks instead of hundreds.

The challenge with space mining is actually getting to the asteroids in the first place. In order to be in a position to start extracting these precious resources, mining equipment first needs to break free from Earth's orbit. In the vast majority of cases, the thrust required to make this shift (known as the delta-v) is so great that the trip would become unprofitable.

After all, it only makes sense to try asteroid mining if we're not going to consume more resources getting to and from the asteroid than we'd actually be able to harvest.




An ideal asteroid – one that justifies such expensive space missions – would need to bring in, say, a billion dollars of materials. No, that is not an exaggeration. This means we're looking at rocks over 100 meters in diameter, which are generally so large that they require a very high delta-v. At present, the majority of rockets would only be cost-effective to set up mining efforts on 3% of asteroids this large.

Which brings us back to the Falcon Heavy. As a rocket with a particularly large amount of power behind its engines, it is capable of greater thrust than any other currently-active rocket on Earth. Thus, Elvis contends, using the Falcon Heavy to transport mining equipment to and from asteroids could mean reaching far more usable mining spots across the solar system. With the Falcon Heavy, it could be possible to reach up to 45% of all ore-bearing asteroids instead – a phenomenal improvement in the number of viable mining targets.

Of course, there's more to consider than simply the challenge of getting to these asteroids. The technology to actually mine these rocks isn't quite there yet and, of course, governments are showing an interest in regulating the practice, all of which could make things difficult for would-be prospectors.

There's also the question of consumption that needs to be addressed. Is it worthwhile to try bringing more resources to our planet, or should we be conserving our existing supplies? Importing a load of space gold to our planet would instantly devalue the gold that's already here, which could actually destabilize the stock market.

It looks like space mining won't be happening just yet but, as a collective, we need to have a serious discussion now about how space mining should move forward.

Elon Musk and his rich one-percenter customers shouldn't be allowed to do whatever they want on every rock in space. These resources potentially belong to all of humanity. We need to avoid making the same mistakes with interplanetary colonialism that we did when we first developed a global society.


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SpaceX
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