A study suggests that man is better off trying to mine resources from asteroids zipping through the galaxy than on the surface of the moon for sustained space travel and satellite performance.
According to researchers, there are over a thousand viable asteroids that are closer to the Earth than we are to the moon that is water-rich or are hydrated, which suggests that human could shift their focus on finding ways to mine its resources than having to go all the way to the moon.
As of the moment, human space exploration is limited by the fuel that we can use to power spacecraft because we still need to bring them down from Earth to space. Because of this constraint, researchers are looking into ways for man to be able to have refueling mechanisms in-space.
If engineers can figure out how to mine water from water-rich asteroids, they could produce a source of ready fuel in space that would allow spacecraft designers to build models for the next generation of satellites.
Asteroid researcher at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Research Laboratory in Maryland and lead author of the paper, Andrew Rivkin says that human space exploration could unlock a “level-up” moment where asteroid mining could fuel human exploration, saving the expense of launching fuel from Earth.
Out of the 1,000 near-Earth, water-rich asteroids, most of these space rocks are only a few feet in size, but more than 25 of them should be large enough to each provide significant water, the research suggests. Altogether, the water locked in these asteroids should be enough to fill somewhere around 320,000 Olympics-size swimming pools.
The landmark new research suggests this is significantly more than the amount of water lying frozen in the lunar poles.
In addition to asteroids being nearer to Earth, the research says that it is also more accessible. Significantly, asteroids are small, they have less gravity than Earth or the moon do, which makes them easier destinations to land on and lift off from.
The only challenger for asteroid miners would be to come up with a useful water-rich asteroid-hunting device that would be able to determine, which among the thousands of asteroids near Earth will yield the most water.
Typically, bunting for space water from the surface of the Earth is challenging because the planet’s atmosphere blocks the wavelength of light where water can be observed. The asteroid warming as it draws closer to the sun can also complicate measurements.
The Johns Hopkins University researchers looked to examined the Ch class of asteroids to find a solution.
Although Ch class space rocks do not directly exhibit a watery fingerprint, they possess the telltale signal of oxidized iron seen only on asteroids with signatures of water-rich minerals. This gave the authors confidence in assuming all Ch asteroids carry this rocky water.
Using meteorite data, a previous study estimated Ch asteroids constitute nearly 10 percent of the near-Earth objects (NEOs).
This allowed researchers to determine there are between 26 and 80 such objects that are hydrated and larger than 0.62 miles (1 km) wide.
Right now, only three NEOs have been classified as Ch space rocks, although others have been sighted in the asteroid belt.
In the future, with useful and functional space mining technologies, we could soon launch satellites and spacecraft that will not entirely be reliant on the fuel from Earth but will be able to source more from asteroids available.
According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, more than 5,200 of the objects launched into space are still in orbit today. While some continue to function, a large sum of the things orbiting Earth is debris left from old and decommissioned satellites. Refueling satellites in space could change that model, replacing it with long-lived, productive orbiters.
“It’s easier to bring fuel from asteroids to geosynchronous orbit than from the surface of the Earth,” Rivkin said. “If such a supply line could be established, it could make asteroid mining very profitable.”
So far, there are at least two asteroid mining companies — Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries —looking into the feasibility of the extraterrestrial endeavor.
In 2015, former US President Barack Obama signed a law that grants US citizens rights to own resources mined in space. The ground-breaking rule was touted as a significant boost to asteroid mining because it encourages the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids obtained by US firms.
US-based Planetary Resources, a firm pioneering the space mining industry, believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel, and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.