“NASA mulls plan to drag asteroid into moon’s orbit” New Scientist
It is partly because of the above pdf that the following is written. As those of you familiar with my writings know, I am a huge fan of the “Flexible Path” as suggested by the Augustine Committee for the future of Human Spaceflight.
From this the ‘ObamaSpace’ initiative of an asteroid vs the Bush back to the Moon (VSE) was a welcome move but I never imagined this!
Hats off to the authors of this study. It is simply breathtaking in its grandeur and simplicity and I wish it every success.
The Essentials of Asteroid Mining
(Warning some factual content!)
|>1000km||Planet (Unless you
|“Debris”||If it’s too small to take
a bootprint, it’s:
For the most part this is a misnomer as it is not really possible to “mine” an asteroid. (Well it is! But not in a traditional Terrestrial sense!) These are largely undifferentiated bodies, “Cosmic Dust Bunnies” untouched by the vagaries of plate tectonics; volcanism; high pressures & temperatures …and time. There are no seams of ore to follow into the rock face. Merely an even mixture of material: comprising the unevapourated leftovers local to the Zone it formed in.
PyroZone:: Metals and high temperature silicates …to Cryo:: Hydrogen ice and traces of everything else.
Instead, a mining operation is primarily a prospecting operation. With the hope of a ‘Motherlode!’ Or discovering that giant impact diamond needed for the fictional Gravity Drives or even more fictional FtL!
Paydirt can take the following forms:
The mainstay of the operation is discovering an asteroid (Henceforth ‘Roid’. ) …that has more than just the usual powdered and melted regolith dross. More often as not this is usually a matter of placement rather than content. Thus in the inner System (In-Sys) a ‘strike’ takes the form of an ex-cometary body rich in carbon; nitrogen and, ideally, hydrogen that has wandered in from the CryoZone and has not quite melted yet. It came as some surprise —even to this Space Cadet— that there are in reality large lumps of water ice out there in Near Earth Orbit and as for ice at the poles of Mercury?
(One of the great myths and bad jokes of space travel is that there is no atmosphere. On the contrary there is plenty of atmosphere, as oxygen can be found almost anywhere. The main shortage In-Sys is hydrogen which is sort of necessary if you want to drink (H2O) or (C2H5OH) for that matter! But that requires carbon as well! And very little oxygen you will note.)
At the other end of the System (Out-Sys) the ‘strike’ is finding a rare body of metals and minerals where the Cometary Zone is just crammed (in a relative sense) …with hydrogen and all those other volatiles absent In-Sys.
But these are the lucky strikes.
What pays the bills is finding a ‘Roid with slightly more than its fair share of these relatively precious materials; placing a traditional marker beacon and spray-slagging the rock with BIG macroGraphics: “this is mine!” Or words to that effect with the obligatory mining laser. Meanwhile the astrogator is charting its course and selling the information to the big CorpRats who really do ‘mine’ the ‘Roids’.
Much, much later: a Refinery might get sent out to process your find and then, in due course, perhaps a percentage of the profit would be paid to your bank balance. Or, more likely, your descendants…
[Here I would SERIOUSLY recommend “Heavy Time” by C.J. Cherryh.]
In a slightly more fictional setting: a really commercially viable ‘Roid may have more than it’s fair share of the rare commodities: platinum and other precious metals; radio-actives such as thorium and perhaps uranium and the various rare earths. All will only be present in very small quantities. But when you refine a whole ‘Roid there is a lot of ‘quantity’ to start with! Unfortunately, Science Fiction aside, only bulk processing will pay dividends and salaries and big fat director bonuses. On the other hand we have found ice at the poles of Mercury…
So who’s to say what we might find out there!
It would seem that the traditional Meteor Miner is a science fantasy rather than science fact. Pity. But a small independant concern prospecting away in the Void has one advantage: it is there on the spot. Or, rather, in the right orbit! Here there is always the chance of finding that rare commodity: a chunk of core material which HAS undergone differentiation. And is small enough for a small concern to refine itself. Or better still: haul away.
Small is beautiful after all.
During the formation of a Solar System sometimes a planet gets born and grows by accretion – just like Earth. Differentiating to form a core full of really dense stuff that we only see a tiny fraction of, stuck out here on the crust. Which then gets smashed up by something nearly as big – just like Earth. This collision sending material all over the place. Some of it: into orbits that cannot permit a large body to form because of the perturbation of a larger body. Just like Jupiter!
There it sits. Full of dense materials and metals waiting for the lucky prospector to come along.
These bodies naturally are very valuable and other ‘Roid miners ‘RockRats” will try to take it away from you.
As will the large CorpRats. And that’s when the real Mining starts.
With Mines. And Lasers and Missile Platforms…
However if we have lasers we can also shoot at something else! Whilst prospecting a likely looking body: a close visual inspection of the various major impact craters in combination with a delicate gravimetric analysis may prove fruitful. The gravimetric scan, along with other fine detail sensor work being carried out by mini-satellites; similar to that of the recent GRAIL mission but at a much reduced scale and much higher resolution. Some of these craters may contain MASCONS “mass concentrations” little chunks of core materials or perhaps a nickel-iron ‘Roid just loaded with platinum.
As impact velocities can be quite low there is a good chance that these bodies have landed relatively intact. Blasting into the depths of a likely looking crater with a delicate succession of pulses from a mining laser will produce a plume of data for spectro-analysis with the occasional payoff! Then it’s time to EVA and dig the mother(lode) out!
Then, once any really valuable ore has been removed: the location; orbit and composition of the ‘Roid can still be sold on to the CorpRats!
Alternatively nature may do the blasting for us and a small ‘Roid may have smaller denser (richer) moonlets of just ripe for the pirating!
Ascending (descending?) into Science Fiction; another useful weapon in the mining arsenal is a neutrino detector, using the local primary as a source. Fluctuations in the ‘neutrino energy state’ could be used to map the interior densities of the prospective ‘Roid and then perhaps a real shaft would be drilled
into the heart of the ‘Roid for a deeply buried lump of core material. Real space mining at last. The tunnels forming habitat and the farms of Heinlein’s “…Harsh Mistress” And voilà another revolutionary enclave in the making!
Meteor mining by Wild Bill Williams (E.E. “Doc. Smith Grey Lensman refers.) Smaller hunks of differentiated ores ‘nuggets’ would be handled differently. With varying amounts of NiFe/ CHON/ and rare earths accruing in a special container to be redeemed at a refinery or trade station for a premium price. And, whilst you are out there roaming the Belt: there may be that chance encounter with a small meteor in a close pass or barrelling in on a collision vector! But before blasting it to harmless MMOD “micro-meteor/ orbital debris” vapour… a fine milliSecond burn could reveal something of value… Any excuse for a sortie on the traditional SpaceBike! Or, perhaps, firing off a grapple net and reeling in a prize catch!
Then there are the mainstays of REALLY fictional meteor mining: superMetals; nanoBlack holes; Magnetic Monopoles; the SeeTee of Jack Williamson and the mysterious Artifacts left over from the inhabitants of the Lost Planet!