GOLDEN, Colorado – A cash flow falling from the sky is a makeshift but promising harvest of asteroid mining. This is already a “claims hopping” endeavor with claims that billions, trillions, even quadrillions of dollars are looming in space, ready to be collected and claimed.
Several space exploration groups eager to dig extraterrestrial asteroid digs have already come and gone. Torn, frayed and beleaguered business plans are left behind.
But the past is prologue. But this time, step-by-step strategies are being implemented. In general, the prospect of harvesting moolah goals from off-Earth mining has become a tempered matter.
Related: AstroForge, asteroid mining start-up, raises $13 million, launches test mission
Resources: A factor for space exploration
“Ten years ago, people were excited and there were those who declared that the first trillionaire would be made in space in those years,” said Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Space Resource Center at the Colorado School of Mines in Gold, Colorado.
“They failed, and their plans were very ambitious, too far away and just didn’t come true,” Abbud-Madrid told Space.com. Many nations have also started digging in space, but he said that for good all have drawn attention to an important fact: resources are the enabler of space exploration.
In this respect, water has become a prime target wherever we want to go, Abbud-Madrid added.
Space mining has matured to the point where there are dozens of start-ups, even larger companies, tackling aspects of the so-called “space resource value chain,” Abbud-Madrid said.
But there’s the “who-ville” question at stake: who will get the data required to locate valuable resources in space? Who will identify the concentrations of available material, drill, excavate, excavate and clean? Who will provide transport, energy and connectivity? Who is not only going to mine, but also use the resources to create structures for space exploration?
For now, there is a deficit in the economic sense, Abbud-Madrid said, “and that’s why the asteroids have been abandoned … but they’re coming back.” Still, caution should be exercised, Abbud-Madrid said, “as some companies fail, some business cases will not be closed, and then it all comes down to a more reasonable level. But the interest is there.”
First of all, however, you need to determine what resources are available. Then the question arises, who is the customer? “It’s a chicken and egg problem. It goes around in circles,” Abbud-Madrid said.
It is clear that in the near term, the space asset value chain is now tied to the Moon. “The whole field is moving and it’s all about the moon.” He said once it’s proven to be an explorer’s paradise, “maybe it’ll be asteroids, but that could be a much longer view.”
This long-term perspective will cover the beagle’s legal view of asteroid resource mining, such as ownership and claims issues.
“You see the consensus that the UN Space Treaty does not necessarily block resource extraction. It does not allow you to own a planetary body. But legally, how to do it in an organized, efficient, sustainable and responsible way? This will require diplomacy,” concluded Abbud-Madrid.
We get to know asteroids
Exploring asteroids up close has gained momentum over the past few years.
For example, NASA’s pioneering Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous project landed on the asteroid Eros in 2001. Japan has obtained samples of space rock returns through the Hayabusa missions. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently on its way back to Earth after being collected on the Bennu asteroid. Meanwhile, the space agency’s Lucy probe is headed outward to reconnoitre several Trojan asteroids. Yet to be launched is NASA’s Psyche spacecraft to a unique metal asteroid.
Then there’s NASA’s recent Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – the world’s first demonstration of planetary defense technology by striking and moving a space rock.
All of these missions definitely help in gathering knowledge about asteroids, said Abbud-Madrid. “Now it’s about how to extract the material? This will be another challenge. Understanding asteroids is a key thing. We are at the stage of getting to know them.”
Read more: NASA DART Asteroid Destroying Mission: Ultimate Guide
Sky scanning system
Joel Heartl is the founder and CEO of TransAstra, a California-based company dedicated to sustainable sourcing from the moon and asteroids to change the course of history.
“There have to be several technical breakthroughs to make asteroid mining possible. We think we’ve put them all to bed,” Serzel told Space.com. TransAstra developed a transportation and equipment plan to accomplish the task “to properly process the asteroid in a meaningful way,” he said.
Serzel said that part of the plan is to use the Sutter Mill telescopes; it was the discovery of Sutter’s Mill in 1848 that spurred the California Gold Rush. “It’s a whole new way of thinking about studying asteroids. We’re really lowering the ‘cost of discovery’ by a lot of factors.”
Using low-cost commercial telescopes in Arizona and California, TransAstra’s sky scanning system is armed with improved software. The system is already busy with work and is being fine-tuned, Nagle said. The TransAstra program is all about finding easily accessible asteroids that are small, say in the 15 to 50 foot range.
“We have a mission roadmap that could take us to the point where we are discovering hundreds of times more asteroids per year than current asteroid surveys,” says Sercel.
He noted that TransAstra’s work in this area was supported by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
Call it bee activity.
As part of TransAstra’s Apis flight system architecture, Trzeciel and his team are developing an industrial-scale asteroid mining system that includes the Omnivore Solar Rocket, the Mini-Bee Demonstrator Concept, and the Worker Bee Space Tug. The group also tested “optical digging,” a proprietary technique that uses concentrated sunlight to mine and extract fuel from volatile-rich asteroids, moons and planetary surfaces.
Corazl believes that optical mining enables TransAstra’s vision of extracting thousands of tons of water and other materials to propel rockets into space. What could significantly reduce human space exploration and industrialization of space, helping to free the Earth’s biosphere from the ravages of resource exploitation.
“We’re going into space to solve problems here on Earth,” concluded Trzeciel. “No one wants to think about a future where people don’t prosper. So it’s time for us to go into space.”
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