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Sun Apr 29, 2012, 06:05 PM

Let’s Lasso Us Some Space Rocks: Asteroid Mining And You

Last Tuesday, the future finally sounded like the future. A coalition of willing billionaires, spaceflight professionals, and scientific advisors under the banner of Planetary Resources announced their deadly serious intention to go out there and mine themselves some asteroids (video). And the scientific community responded with a heartfelt finally. Assuming this plan isn’t the prelude to some kind of Bond-villain-esque scheme to hold the world hostage for trillions of dollars or they’ll drop an asteroid on our heads (note to self: screenplay??), what’s going to happen? What does it mean for astronomers and planetary scientists? What contributions will the scientific community make, and what data do we stand to gain?

Asteroids are not just little floating gold mines, they’re precious scientific relics. They are the only nearby remnants of the presolar nebula, and preserve a vast trove of data about the cloud of gas and dust that formed our Sun and Solar System, the processes that built up the planets, and even fragments of what came before. Asteroids can provide vital insights into theories of planet formation by telling us about disk composition and temperature. They preserve the history of the processes that built them up, telling us about how dust and rock clump together to form larger bodies, a subject of great interest to those who study extrasolar planets. They’re also the best source for the composition of the presolar nebula, and by extension provide one of the benchmarks for the solar abundance set, or the relative abundances of the chemical elements, key to our understanding of nucleosynthesis and related topics. Right now, however, our only access to asteroids is via meteorites (ah, astronomy; where waiting for research material to fall out of the sky is a viable strategy). Meteorites are often found after sitting on the surface for a long time, enduring Earth’s many chemical processes. This destroys any volatiles that may have been retained, and introduces contamination. And they’re quite rare. In particular the CI carbonaceous chondrite group, upon which the solar abundance set is benchmarked, is very rare; the majority of our data comes from 12 pounds of rock in a jar in France.

So astronomers and planetary scientists would love to get their hands on tons of pristine space rock. Why haven’t we done it yet? Mining asteroids – or at least returning samples from them – has long been a staple not just of science fiction, but of decadal surveys and mission concepts. NASA, JPL, and even some private firms have studied mission concepts for sample returns and rendezvous with asteroids for a long time. But only a few targeted missions have been launched, such as the Dawn spacecraft currently studying the asteroid Vesta and the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft, which successfully returned 1500 grains of material from the Near-Earth asteroid 25143 Itokawa. Other spacecraft such as Deep Space 1 and Galileo have swung by asteroids on their way to other destinations, but done little more than photograph the objects in passing. And NASA’s planetary science budget has suffered greatly in recent years as the agency struggles to keep JWST alive in the face of Congressional budget cuts.


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Reply Let’s Lasso Us Some Space Rocks: Asteroid Mining And You (Original post)
MindMover Apr 2012 OP
AmateurPolymath Apr 2012 #1

Response to MindMover (Original post)

Sun Apr 29, 2012, 09:47 PM

1. Well...

That's certainly interesting and enlightening for most of us, who's lives won't be affected in any way by this new space industry. Some billionaire space titan is probably jizzing his pants over how much money he'll get in contracts. Honestly, unless these kinds of discoveries improve our lives at home in any way, I don't think space exploration benefits us much at the moment. It'll bring a few high-paying engineering jobs, at the very least. The Cold War space race, contrary to popular belief, did not have the support of most Americans, who saw it as a sinkhole and a giveaway to contractors. Still, government-funded projects during the Cold War brought forth many things we today take for granted, such as GPS. Even if these discoveries don't give us much in return, they're a better use of federal money than tax credits on obsolete energy sources like oil.

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