NASA has set its eyes on new sources of possible revenue and among those new sources, asteroid mining is definitely an out-of-the-ordinary bet. There is certainly a lot of doubt concerning NASA’s decision, especially since mining operations are experiencing tremendous difficulties in cost management on Earth, let alone on asteroids. Contracts have already been signed with Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, two independent tech companies who intent to pursue asteroid mining.
What these groups are currently working on is finding a sustainable strategy to allow for resources to be gathered from space.
Why Asteroid Mining?
The companies currently working on these mining strategies are convinced that harvesting resources in space as opposed to having them brought from earth (which costs anywhere between $5,000 to $25,000 per kilogram) might be the better option. They are now searching for asteroids that are close to Earth, composed of ice, minerals, metals, silicate minerals and carbonaceous minerals. As a secondary goal, resources could also be gathered to be sent back to Earth, however, gathering resources for space exploration is the companies’ main concern.
Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries
Planetary Resources’ asteroid mining strategy involves the Arkyd 3 and Arkyd 6 test satellites. The company plans to use several mid-sized space telescopes to identify appropriate near-earth asteroids with a high economic potential. Moreover, the company also plans to obtain revenue by commercializing some of their telescopes, such as the Arkyd 200 or 300. Later on, Planetary Resources hopes to create an orbital propellant depot and to robotically conduct asteroid mining operations.
Deep Space Industries, on the other hand, has a slightly different approach. They plan to use FireFlies, their compact spacecrafts, in missions with the objective of gathering the same information that Planetary Resources wants to obtain with telescopes. In future stages of the project, another spacecraft called the “Dragonfly” will be used to capture asteroids for analysis and processing method testing. “Harvestors” will finally be the ones collecting the material that is returned to Earth’s orbit. A Harvestor should be prepared for full-scale production and collect anything from propellant to metals as well as manufacture radiation shielding or materials from the extracted metals.
NASA Experience so Far
There have been several studies conducted thus far investigating the potential that asteroid mining might have. As the Robotic Asteroid Prospector Study suggested, Platinum Group Metals should have the best potential for such mining operations. On the other hand, NASA has already been studying robot mining for some years now and hosts annual competitions where students present mining robot prototypes.