Asteroid mining is no longer only a subject for science fiction. James Cameron believes so firmly that mining the asteroids is possible that he has backed it with a considerable chunk of his own money. So have Google co-founder Larry Page and real estate developer Ross Perot Jr. They are all pinning their hopes on new research which has shown that asteroid mining is feasible with existing technology.
The KISS study
The Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena has released an in-depth study on the feasibility of asteroid mining. The study developed a hypothetical Asteroid Capture and Return mission and outlined how it could be done with current technology.
Analysis showed that a mission could successfully bring a single Near Earth Orbit (NEO) asteroid to a high lunar orbit by the year 2025. The asteroid was estimated to be roughly 23 feet wide and weigh around 1.1 million pounds.
The technology advances that have made this possible consist of 3 parts:
1. Target asteroids can be identified from the ground.
2. Solar electric propulsion systems can transport the asteroid to lunar orbit in a reasonable time.
3. Human presence has been established previously in lunar orbit. Continued human presence in lunar orbit will be needed to deal with newly arrived asteroids.
At an estimated $2.6 billion USD to bring a single asteroid to lunar orbit, the cost of the mission is prohibitive to private enterprise. However, Planetary Resources Inc. hopes to develop new technology to bring down the cost, and find a few money-making projects along the way.
This company was formed in November 2010 under the vague name of Arkyd Astronautics, to keep word of its real mission from leaking out until its participants were ready. Just 3 weeks after the KISS study was released, Planetary Resources Inc. finally revealed its long-term plans to a sold-out public audience.
The primary goal of Planetary Resources Inc. is to develop a robotic asteroid mining industry by developing and deploying the necessary technologies. The long-term strategic plan has several stages.
The first stage of the plan is an asteroid survey and analysis, using purpose-built satellites in Earth orbit, to identify the best target NEO asteroids for mining. These space telescopes will also be available for hire. The first model, the Arkyd-100, has already been developed.
After target asteroids have been identified, robotic survey probes will be sent to those asteroids for sampling and deep scanning. The company estimates that this stage of the plan will take a decade. During this time, the company will be developing and deploying an orbital propellant depot.
However, this stage of the plan may run into existing terrestrial fresh water issues. Even if ocean water is desalinated and used instead, there may also be concerns about the amount of water Earth would be losing to space.
If the previous stages of the plan have worked, the final stage is to establish robotic asteroid-based mining and processing operations. This part of the plan will also require the capability to transport the processed metals to their final destination.
= Other uses of asteroid-mining technology =
Planetary Resources Inc. hopes to use the technology it develops to protect the Earth from asteroid collisions. This will require the company to develop the technology to affect and control asteroid orbits. They also hope to establish partnerships in education and research.