Tapping the Universe
Asteroid and Space Mining
“Space – the final frontier.”
These four words, uttered in the original Star Trek series in the mid-sixties, continue to inspire the American dream of space exploration which began with the ‘space race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Triggered by the 1957 launch of satellite Sputnik 1 and soon followed by Soviet air forces pilot Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person to fly in space in 1961, pressure was on the U.S.
President John F. Kennedy famously told Congress, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Although Kennedy would not live to see his dream realized, America ultimately won the Cold War geopolitical battle when Apollo 11 became the first lunar-landing mission and Neil Armstrong went on to be the first human being to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Decades in the making
Over 50 years later, the moon landing remains one of the most important events in history. For the U.S., the costly, dangerous mission was about not only being the first to reach the moon, 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) distant from Earth, but to gather valuable data. Over the course of three hours, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin walked the surface, collecting samples of rocks and dirt, while Mike Collins remained in orbit, taking photos and conducting experiments.
Apollo 11, the moon landing, and the dream of spaceflight would not have been possible without the vision of Robert Goddard. A pioneering rocket engineer, physics teacher, and author, the visionary Goddard published his book A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes in 1919 about a rocket making its way to the moon.
Testing the first rocket engines powered by liquid fuel in 1923 (previously only solid fuel was used), in 1926 Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket, propelled by gasoline and liquid oxygen. Over the coming decades, he equipped rockets with cameras, thermometers and barometers, took out over 200 rocket-related patents, and became the director of research for the U.S. Department of the Navy at the Bureau of Aeronautics, before dying in 1945.
During his lifetime, Goddard oversaw the construction of rockets able to reach speeds of 550 mph (885 km/h), and soar to heights of 1.5 miles, about 2 kilometers. His pioneering work – along with that of Russian counterpart, rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) – not only led to the development of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, but the possibility of setting up colonies on other planets and mining asteroids.
Mars within reach
Today, Earth’s resources are running out, pressuring governments, entrepreneurs and visionaries to explore the possibility of mining other planets.
Tremendous advances in technology mean that asteroid mining and long-distance space exploration are no longer the preserve of science fiction writers and filmmakers, but a prospect steadily looming closer. The nearest habitable planet in our solar system is Mars, with a surface area close to that of dry land on Earth.
Factors including favorable temperatures, a slightly longer day with sunlight to power solar panels, a thin but protective atmosphere, and a gravity that’s 38 percent of that on Earth combine to make Mars a strong contender for terraforming – a literal transformation of the Red Planet – making it able to host human life and support experimentation.
Gaining momentum in recent years, the vision of furthering space exploration and settlement goes back a long way, with the Soviet Union sending satellites into orbit in the early Sixties and attempting to reach Mars. They were defeated by the U.S. and Mariner 4, which flew by Mars on July 14, 1965, sending back 21 blurry photos.
On January 14, 2004, then-President George W. Bush reaffirmed America’s desire to further uncover the mysteries of space. Praising the dedicated men and women at NASA, Bush spoke of “a new focus and vision for future exploration.” He mentioned the space shuttle – which had flown over 100 times at that point – and various dramatic discoveries, including evidence of water, “a key ingredient for life on Mars and on the moons of Jupiter.”
Reinforcing the importance of returning to the Moon, Bush noted that a longer presence on the surface would lower the cost of future space exploration.
“Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth’s gravity is expensive,” he said. “Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far-lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost. Also the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air… With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.”
Lowdown on logistics
The logistics involved in lengthy space missions such as Earth to Mars are, in a word, formidable.
At a minimum distance of 33.9 million miles (54.6 million kilometers) it would take about seven months to get to Mars. Although that’s a shorter spell than the almost 438 consecutive days Russian astronaut Valery Polyakov spent aboard the Mir Space Station, it would take a special breed of person to endure over 200 days on a one-way trip to Mars.
While scientists continue to make discoveries via Mars exploration rovers, minerals useful to future colonists are already known to exist on Mars. These are the same sort of deposits found on Earth, consisting of iron, aluminum, magnesium, titanium, and nickel-iron meteorites.
Among the most useful metals are niobium – similar to titanium, and used in steel and superconductors – and europium, used in television sets, the manufacturing of laser glass and fluorescent glass, and LED light bulbs. These and other metallic elements would be extremely useful in helping future colonists to sustain a presence on Mars.
One option is to have humans mining the surface of Mars. Another is to group them into colonies orbiting Mars, remotely controlling robots on the planet that perform all mining tasks. Considering the many recent advances in remote control and teleoperated mining equipment here on Earth – where a remote operator uses cameras, sensors and GPS to direct operations – this concept isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem.
Like any space endeavor, colonizing Mars will take money – a lot of it. Aspirant space pioneers so far include Tesla’s Elon Musk, whose passion for exploration led him to create SpaceX, which designs, builds and launches spacecraft. In 2018, the eccentric Musk outlined the excitement and dangers of travel to Mars.
Others who proposed travel to Mars included Mars One. A private Dutch company, it was active from 2012 until it went bankrupt in 2019. The founders of Mars One proposed the readying of a human crew to fly to the Red Planet in 2024 and in 2026. With a lack of research into the necessary aspects of medicine, electricity and life support, and widely criticized by scientists, the scheme was dismissed as a suicide mission by many.
Mapping a million-mile leap
In late 2018, researchers from the Switzerland-based École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) university created a guide for a sustainable research facility on Mars. Unlike Mars One, the university’s step-by-step plan included the best place to colonize – near Mars’s ice-filled poles, which would supply water – and ways to utilize the planet’s natural resources like iron, sulfur, and aluminum to make glass and other products.
They also stipulated that, prior to any mining, a dome for human habitation would have to be constructed, and that the first crew would be expected to remain on Mars for about nine months. Supplementary flights carrying supplies and further equipment such as cranes would have to be scheduled.
Others, including NASA, are actively pursuing asteroid operations, notably with the OSIRIS-REx mission. Having already captured the first images of the Asteroid Bennu (on August 17, 2018, from 1.4 million miles – 2.2 million kilometers), OSIRIS-Rex will fly close to the asteroid, “and will ultimately touch the surface for five seconds to gather a sample of the asteroid,” according to NASA. The final stage, the sampling, will be conducted through TAGSAM, a Touch-and-Go-Sample-Acquisition-Mechanism instrument using a blast of nitrogen gas to gather regolith – loose surface deposits. Once it’s determined that a sample has been successfully collected, the spacecraft will make its way back to Earth.
Although former President Bush’s goals of returning to the moon and of astronauts landing on Mars this year will not happen as he anticipated, these and other outer space explorations should eventuate fairly soon. Although most of the constraints on timing have less to do with the thrills of discovery than with finance, governments and private companies alike recognize that there should be incredible wealth to be had in mining other planets.
In 2017, U.S. Senator for Texas, Ted Cruz – who also represents Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center – famously said, “The first trillionaire will be made in space; will be the entrepreneur who invests and makes discoveries in space that we cannot even envision. Right now we have billionaires, the prediction I’m making: the first trillionaire will be in the space exploration world.”
Considering that asteroids like Psyche 16 – located in the orbits between Mars and Jupiter – contain platinum and gold, he may very well be right.