Study looks at making asteroid mining viable

Sep 26, 2012 by Andy Tomaswick, Universe Today
Study looks at making asteroid mining viable
Artist concept of the Robotic Asteroid Prospector. Credit: Marc Cohen et al.

There's been a lot of buzz in the media lately about mining asteroids, largely brought on by the introduction of Planetary Resources, Peter Diamandis' new venture into the industry. But is this business proposition actually viable? NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts is funding a study that hopes to answer that question.

Called the Robotic Prospector proposal, the project is part of the NIAC's Phase I program awardees. It is headed by Dr. Marc Cohen, an architect based in Palo Alto California, with help from Warren James, a trajectory expert, Kris Zacny, a roboticist at Honeybee Robotics and Brad Blair, a mineral economist. Their proposal studies the fundamentals of some major questions facing the asteroid mining industry. What kinds of mission and spacecraft design are necessary? Is the right kind of mining technology available? And most importantly, is there even a viable business model for doing it in the first place?

Dr. Cohen himself is skeptical that there is, but points out that's part of the reason he's so interested in performing the research. Contributing to his skepticism are the numerous assumptions the proposal is based on. These include a telescope in Venus orbit to help the search for near-Earth objects (one of NASA's primary mission statements, and similar to the B612 Foundation's that will hunt for ) and regular commercial access to a service base located in a Lagrange point from which to launch the missions.

"We're trying to make the assumptions really clear, specific and explicit, so we understand what the trade-offs are," Dr. Cohen told Universe Today. "One thing we're being very careful about is not going in with any preconceptions."

The assumptions lead to a spacecraft design, possibly using a solar-thermal , that launches to a NEO from the Lagrange point station, mines and processes the material at the asteroid and then returns it to the Lagrange point for shipment back to Earth.

Dr. Cohen explained that the team is trying to find the requirements that would make a robotic asteroid program commercially successful.

There are still plenty of challenges to solve, including developing trajectories that allow the spacecraft to make repeated, short trips to the asteroid it is mining and handling any sort of technical problems without a human presence nearby. If it manages to resolve some of those difficulties, the project could result in the outlines of one of the backbones of the future space economy. It might also attract funding for the Phase II round of funding from NIAC next year.

Explore further: "CanJam" joint among first to fly on NASA, Virgin Galactic flight

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA looking at dozens of advanced technology concepts

Aug 27, 2012

All the media focus surrounding the recent landing of NASA'S rover Curiosity has brought increased attention to space technology. Just in time to bask in the limelight, NASA has delivered a tech enthusiast's ...

Dawn moves closer to the asteroid belt

Sep 12, 2007

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has been positioned at Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 17B atop a Delta II rocket for its launch from Florida later this month.

Dealing with threatening space rocks

Sep 20, 2007

Every now and then a space rock hits the world's media – sometimes almost literally. Threatening asteroids that zoom past the Earth, fireballs in the sky seen by hundreds of people and mysterious craters ...

Recommended for you

Tidal forces gave moon its shape, according to new analysis

2 hours ago

The shape of the moon deviates from a simple sphere in ways that scientists have struggled to explain. A new study by researchers at UC Santa Cruz shows that most of the moon's overall shape can be explained by taking into ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Lurker2358
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2012
They need to understand that you should land on Earth as seldom as possible, as I'm sure they know.

The solution I proposed to prevent the most valuable materials burning up on re-entry to Earth was to create cargo ships using the less valuable materials: iron, aluminum, silica, etc, and fill them with the Platinum group, and rare Earth metals.

This method will greatly reduce launch costs, however such drop pods will require some means of course correction to ensure they land in a location that is safe yet easily accessible.

For this purpose, you might build some sort of solar "Tractor" which would haul the cargo in "drop pods" and correct the course and then drop them. Then the "tractor" would return to the refinery to pick up the next load. to be time-wise efficient you would need a "fireman's chain" of these robots going around the clock.

whenever possible, structural components should be made from the less valuable metals in space, not launched from earth.

Expand, expand..
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2012
The biggest benchmark would be when you can make the majority of the components for a SECOND refinery using only materials made in space, because at that point, you would cut out almost all Earth-launch costs.

One of the biggest advantages of asteroid mining is that, with some probe and telescope scans, you can find the type you're looking for, and you know there's heavy metallic ores there, but you just don't know which type right away.

Obviously the biggest disadvantages are logistics and maintenance.

To this end, the mining facility should have as many "passive" components as possible, with as few moving parts as possible. Reliance on lasers and possibly direct solar concentrators for mining and refining is a requirement IMO.

Refining metals in space may require some form of vapor process, which is very high energy, but can probably get metals to .9 or better even in low gravity. Direct concentrated solar may be the only viable fuel option.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Sep 27, 2012
Complex heat shielding might not be necessary. Getting a heat shield into space (or manufacturing one on the spot - or even going for fully ledged drop pods) is probably a lot more costly/complex than just living with a small percentage loss of a sizeable ore dump.

Drop it near an uninhabited coastline (or into some designated area in central Australia, Africa, China or Siberia. ) and you're good.

But I still think the overall costs are WAY too high to consider this at present.