- Near Earth Asteroid Itokawa. A likely candidate for future mining opportunities. Credit JAXA
Look back in history and you will see that the motivation behind huge investments in exploration and transportation has been the need for resources. The American settlers headed west in their search of gold, oil and timber, and the Europeans headed east along the Silk Road and the spice trade routes. Now, a company based in Seattle, Washington, plans to head away from Earth and into space in search of the precious resources to be found within the thousands of asteroids existing in orbits relatively close to our planet.
The company, Planetary Resources Inc, founded by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, has attracted a group of investors and advisers including Eric Schmidt and Larry Page of Google, and film director James Cameron. The ultimate goal is to exploit the valuable resources which asteroids can offer, and the biggest challenge is to achieve this within a budget which makes the whole project cost effective.
Why is asteroid mining such an exciting proposition?
- How an asteroid could be captured and moved into a more convenient orbit. Credit Planetary Resources
Asteroids contain an abundance of valuable resources including platinum, gold, iron, nickel, rare earth metals and water. At present around 9,000 known asteroids travelling in an orbit close to Earth’s have been identified, with around 1,000 new ones being discovered each year, all of which as easy to reach as the moon. And because they are much smaller than the moon the lower gravitational force will mean that landing and taking off will be less of a problem. Unlike the Earth, heavier metals are distributed evenly throughout an asteroid’s mass rather than closer to the core, and as an added attraction the presence of these materials will often be found in much higher concentrations than on Earth. For instance, it has been estimated that a one kilometer diameter asteroid could contain about 7,500 tons of platinum, worth more than $150 billion.
Rare Earth metals
Despite their name, rare earth metals are fairly common in the Earth’s crust, but the fact that they are so widely scattered makes them difficult to mine. So finding a viable means of harvesting them from space will potentially be a highly profitable business. Added to this, around 95% of the world’s supply of rare earth metals presently comes from China, who have decided to cut back on their exports in order to accommodate their own rapidly expanding industrial needs.
Platinum group metals
Platinum group metals do not occur naturally in the Earth’s crust, but are present due to earlier meteorite impacts. A meteorite is simply a piece of asteroid which has fallen to Earth, so the study of meteorites gives geologists a good idea of the most suitable types of asteroid to choose as candidates for mining.
Which are the most likely candidates?
- An artist’s impression of the Asteroid Belt. Credit NASA
The vast majority of asteroids are located in the region of our Solar System between Mars and Jupiter called the Asteroid Belt, or Main Belt. They range in size from around half a mile across to about 600 miles in diameter, and were created at the birth of the Solar System, 4.6 billion years ago. To put it into perspective, the total mass of all known asteroids, more than half a million in all, is about 4% that of the moon. Due to the gravitational influence of Jupiter some have orbits which carry them close to Earth, in which case they are called Near Earth Objects, or Near Earth Asteroids. And these are the asteroids which Planetary Resources intend to study and ultimately exploit.
How are asteroids classified?
In broad terms there are three classifications of asteroid based on their composition:
- C-type, which are the most common, are carbonaceous, and consist of clay and silicate rocks. They exist furthest from the Sun, and so have been least altered by heat, meaning that they are the most ancient. Due to the fact that some have never even reached temperatures above 50°C, it is estimated they can contain up to 22% water.
- S-type or silaceous asteroids are made up primarily of stony materials and nickel-iron. They inhabit the inner Asteroid Belt.
- M-type, or metallic, are made up mostly of nickel-iron, and are found in the middle region of the Asteroid Belt.
- 2005-YU55, a C-type asteroid. Credit NASA
What are the challenges?
The greatest challenge to Planetary Resources is to build commercially available robotic spacecraft which are at least an order of magnitude cheaper than those currently in use. Unlike governments, failure can be accepted during the development process, and the goal is to build the crafts in an assembly line fashion in order to drive down costs. The project will be carried out in stages, with the first phase already underway, and it is hoped that by the middle of next decade mankind will be reaping the benefits of the abundant resources that asteroids have to offer.
- The Arkyd Series 100 – Leo Space Telescope. Due for launch within the next two years, its job will be to analyse NEOs in order to determine the most likely candidates for future exploitation. Techniques such as spectroscopy and radar technology will be used to determine properties such as the asteroid’s chemical composition, orbit, rotation, size, shape and metal concentration. Due to its relatively low cost and its potential usefulness in a vast number of applications, the Leo will be of interest to the scientist and private citizen alike. The sale of these crafts will therefore enable Planetary Resources to gain revenue in order to achieve its future objectives.
- The Arkyd Series 200 – Interceptor. The intention is for this craft to hitch a ride on a geostationary satellite in order to analyse asteroids at more close quarters. Future advancements in micro-propulsion and imaging techniques will be utilised to enable the craft to get close enough to obtain high resolution data. Two or more Interceptors working together will ensure that the data is collected as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- The Arkyd Series 300 – Rendezvous Prospector. This phase of the project will involve focusing on asteroids much deeper in space. Laser communication technology will be used to determine shape, rotation, density, and surface and sub-surface composition. The Prospector’s capability as a low cost interplanetary spacecraft should also attract customers such as NASA and other scientific establishments.
- Arkyd Series100 - LEO Space Telescope. Credit Planetary Resources
After all the prospecting has taken place, the most exciting phase of the project can then be carried out, the actual mining of the precious resources. Initially the most important resource available in space will be water. Apart from being essential to sustain life, it can also be split into hydrogen and oxygen to create fuel to enable spacecraft to travel further into space. This would allow us to build refuelling stations in order to reach more distant asteroids and aid future manned exploration of the solar system. For this reason the first targeted asteroids will most likely be C-type.
What methods will be used?
- Could this be the future of asteroid mining? Credit Kevin Hand for Popular Science, 2012
The technology needed to carry out the mining process has not yet been developed, but possible methods have been suggested. A device similar to a snow blower, anchored to the surface, could be used to collect loose rubble by using a spinning blade to fling the material through a chute and into a high-strength bag. Many of the mining methods will be similar to those used on Earth, and will consist of drilling, blasting, cutting and crushing. Extraction of individual materials, depending upon their properties, will be achieved by either chemical or physical means. Water can be extracted by heating the solid material, capturing the vapour and then distilling it; electrolysis of molten silicates would produce oxygen, iron and other alloys; and a method called the Mond process could be used to extract nickel. As well as being used for creating industrial wealth on Earth, these raw materials could also be used to actually build structures in space. Dozens of other processes are being considered, and meteorites are the perfect objects to experiment with on Earth.
The idea of landing a robotic craft onto an asteroid in order to extract its precious materials may at first seem the stuff of science fiction. But the more scientists get to grips with the technology necessary to achieve it, the more likely it is that science fiction will soon become science fact.
Questions and Answers
By: International Astronomical Union
Q: What is the origin of the word planet?
A: The word planet comes from the Greek word for “wanderer”, meaning that planets were originally defined as objects that moved in the night sky with respect to the background of fixed stars.
Q: Why is there a need for a new definition for the word planet?
A: Modern science provides much more information than the simple fact that objects orbiting the Sun appear to move with respect to the background of fixed stars. For example, recent new discoveries have been made of objects in the outer regions of our Solar System that have sizes comparable with and larger than Pluto. Historically Pluto has been recognised as the ninth planet. Thus these discoveries have rightfully called into question whether or not the newly found Trans-Neptunian Objects should also be considered as new planets.
Q: How did astronomers reach a consensus for a new definition of planet?
A: The world’s astronomers, under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union, deliberated on a new definition for the word planet for nearly two years. The results of these deliberations were channelled to a Planet Definition Committee and ultimately proposed to the IAU General Assembly. Continued evolution of the definition through debate and further discussion allowed a final consensus and vote.
Q: What new terms are used in the official IAU definition?
A: There are three new terms adopted as official definitions by the IAU. The terms are: planet, dwarf planet and small Solar System body.
Q: In plain language, what is the new definition of planet?
A: A planet is an object in orbit around the Sun that is large enough (massive enough) to have its self-gravity pull itself into a round (or near-spherical) shape. In addition a planet orbits in a clear path around the Sun. If any object ventures near the orbit of a planet, it will either collide with the planet, and thereby be accreted, or be ejected into another orbit.
Q: What is the exact wording of the official IAU proposed definition of planet?
A: A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
Q: Does a body have to be perfectly spherical to be called a planet?
A: No. For example, the rotation of a body can slightly distort the shape so that it is not perfectly spherical. Earth, for example, has a slightly greater diameter measured at the equator than measured at the poles.
Q: Based on this new definition, how many planets are there in our Solar System?
A: There are eight planets in our Solar System; Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. Mnemonic: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.
Q: Is that all, only eight planets?
A: No. In addition to the eight planets, there are also five known dwarf planets. Many more dwarf planets are likely to be discovered soon.
Q: What is a dwarf planet?
A: A dwarf planet is an object in orbit around the Sun that is large enough (massive enough) to have its own gravity pull itself into a round (or nearly round) shape. Generally, a dwarf planet is smaller than Mercury. A dwarf planet may also orbit in a zone that has many other objects in it. For example, an orbit within the asteroid belt is in a zone with lots of other objects.
Q: How many dwarf planets are there?
A: Currently there are five objects accepted as dwarf planets. Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake and Haumea.
Q: What is Ceres?
A: Ceres is (or now we can say it was) the largest asteroid, about 1000 km across, orbiting in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres now qualifies as a dwarf planet because it is now known to be large enough (massive enough) to have self-gravity pulling itself into a nearly round shape. (Thomas, 2005) Ceres orbits within the asteroid belt and is an example of the case of an object that does not orbit in a clear path. There are many other asteroids that can come close to the orbital path of Ceres.
Q: Didn’t Ceres used to be called an asteroid or minor planet?
A: Historically, Ceres was called a planet when it was first discovered in 1801, orbiting in what is known as the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. In the 19th century astronomers could not resolve the size and shape of Ceres, and because numerous other bodies were discovered in the same region, Ceres lost its planetary status. For more than a century, Ceres has been referred to as an asteroid or minor planet.
Q: Why is Pluto now called a dwarf planet?
A: Pluto now falls into the dwarf planet category on account of its size and the fact that it resides within a zone of other similarly-sized objects known as the transneptunian region.
Q: Is Pluto’s satellite Charon a dwarf planet?
A: For now, Charon is considered just to be Pluto’s satellite. The idea that Charon might qualify to be called a dwarf planet in its own right may be considered later. Charon may receive consideration because Pluto and Charon are comparable in size and orbit each other, rather than just being a satellite orbiting a planet. Most important for Charon’s case as a dwarf planet is that the centre of gravity about which Charon orbits is not inside of the system primary, Pluto. Instead this centre of gravity, called the barycentre, resides in free space between Pluto and Charon.
Q: Jupiter and Saturn, for example, have large spherical satellites in orbit around them. Are these large spherical satellites now to be called dwarf planets?
A: No. All of the large satellites of Jupiter (for example, Europa) and Saturn (for example, Titan) orbit around a common centre of gravity (called the “barycentre”) that is deep inside of their massive planet. Regardless of the large size and shapes of these orbiting bodies, the location of the barycentre inside the massive planet is what defines large orbiting bodies such as Europa, Titan, etc. to be satellites rather than planets. [Actually, there has been no official recognition that the location of the barycenter is involved with the definition of a satellite.]
Q: What was 2003 UB313?
A: 2003 UB313 was a provisional name given to a large object discovered in 2003 that resides in an orbit around the Sun beyond Neptune. It is now called Eris and is recognised as a dwarf planet.
Q: Why is Eris a dwarf planet?
A: Hubble Space Telescope images have resolved the size of Eris showing it to be as large as, or larger than Pluto, Brown (2006).More important, Eris was found to have a satellite, which was later named Dysnomia, after the Greek demon of lawlessness who was Eris’ daughter. In 2007, the mass of Eris was determined to be (1.66 ± 0.02)×1022 kg, 27% greater than Pluto, based on observations of the orbit of Dysnomia. Eris also orbits within the transneptunian region – a region that has not been cleared out. Therefore Eris is a dwarf planet.
Q: What is an object called that is too small to be either a planet or dwarf planet?
A: All objects that orbit the Sun that are too small (not massive enough) for their own gravity to pull them into a nearly spherical shape are now defined as being small Solar System bodies. This class currently includes most of the Solar System asteroids, near-Earth objects (NEOs), Mars and Jupiter Trojan asteroids, most Centaurs, most Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and comets.
Q: What is a small Solar System body?
A: The term “small Solar System body” is a new IAU definition to encompass all objects orbiting the Sun that are too small (not sufficiently massive) to satisfy the definition of planet or dwarf planet.
Q: Is the term minor planet still to be used?
A: The term “minor planet” may still be used. But generally the term small Solar System body will be preferred.
Q: How will an official decision be reached on whether or not to call a newly discovered object a planet, dwarf planet, or a Solar System body?
A: The decision on how to classify newly discovered objects will be made by a review committee within the IAU. The review process will be an evaluation, based on the best available data, of whether or not the physical properties of the object satisfy the definitions. It is likely that for many objects, several years may be required to gather sufficient data.
Q: Are there additional planet candidates currently being considered?
A: No. None appear likely in our Solar System. But there are planet discoveries galore around other stars.
Q: Are there additional dwarf planet candidates currently being considered?
A: Yes. Some of the largest asteroids may be candidates for dwarf planet status and some additional dwarf planet candidates beyond Neptune will soon be considered.
Q: When will additional new dwarf planets likely be announced?
A: Probably within the next few years.
Q: How many more new dwarf planets are there likely to be?
A: There may be dozens or perhaps even more than a hundred waiting to be discovered.
Q: What are plutoids?
A: Plutoids are celestial bodies in orbit around the Sun at a semimajor axis greater than that of Neptune that have sufficient mass for their self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that they assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (near-spherical) shape, and that have not cleared the neighbourhood around their orbit. Satellites of plutoids are not plutoids themselves, even if they are massive enough that their shape is dictated by self-gravity. The two known and named plutoids are Pluto and Eris. It is expected that more plutoids will be named as science progresses and new discoveries are made.
Q: Can a satellite orbiting a plutoid be a plutoid too?
A: No, according to the IAU Resolution B5 a dwarf planet can not be a satellite, even if they are massive enough that their shape is dictated by self-gravity.
Brown, M. et al. 2006, Astrophysical Journal, 643, L61
Thomas, P. et al. 2005, Nature, 437, 224
Further reading: Pluto and the Developing Landscape of our Solar System